When Israel’s defense minister chatted on-air with radio listeners last week about the possibility of a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, he did more than just send a warning to the leaders in Tehran. He also shed light on one of the strangest media phenomena in the Middle East: the Farsi-language program of Israel Radio, and its popular following in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian-born Mofaz was taking calls from listeners in Iran during a 50-minute live program on Israel Radio’s Farsi-language service. Responding to one caller, he promised that in the event of a military action against a nuclear reactor, Israel would make sure to protect the environment from radioactive fallout.
Speculation has been rife in recent months that both Israel and the United States have developed contingency plans to take out nuclear facilities in Iran. In addition to a large Russian-built reactor in Bushehr, Iran has also built other facilities. The Islamic republic recently agreed to unfettered international inspections after months of diplomatic wrangling with Washington and the European Union. Israel views the deal skeptically.
The half-century-old Israel Radio program in Farsi has become a fixture in Iran because of its outspoken criticism of the mullahs, incurring the wrath of regime officials but also attracting a large following among disaffected citizens.
While official figures are not available, some observers estimate that the radio has as many as 5 million listeners out of a total Iranian population of some 80 million.
Two weeks ago, after an Iranian legislator lambasted the government on the floor of parliament, a conservative politician asked him sarcastically whether he was Menashe Amir in disguise, referring to the longtime program director of Israel Radio’s Farsi service.
Amir, who became a popular figure in Israel during his coverage of the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, is planning to retire in a few months. He recently hosted another Iranian-born Israeli leader, President Moshe Katsav.
“Iranians don’t trust the state media, so foreign radio is a hit in Iran,” said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee in Los Angeles and a staunch critic of the regime. “And Kol Israel is very popular because it takes a more hard-line stance toward the regime than the BBC or Voice of America.”
The Bush administration has declared Iran a part of the “Axis of Evil” and has sought to encourage a popular democratic movement, but observers say it has not mapped out a specific policy to deal with the regime.
In the meantime, it is banking on radio, television and Internet broadcasts into Iran to woo Iranians, especially the 70% of Iranians who are under 30.
The U.S. government makes Iran a “top priority for U.S. international broadcasting,” according to promotional material from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the entity responsible for all U.S. government and government-sponsored, non-military international broadcasting.
Besides its decades-old radio broadcasts, Voice of America has over the past year upgraded its TV programs and now has three different shows in Farsi, up from one a year ago.
In December 2002, the board launched Radio Farda, a joint effort of the VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, another U.S.-sponsored broadcast service.
Radio Farda, which means “tomorrow” in Farsi, replicates the recently launched, U.S.-backed Arabic-language station Radio Sawa, mixing news and popular music around the clock to target a young audience.
The board is scheduled to launch an Arabic satellite television station called Middle East TV in early 2004. An official with the board of governors said there was no plan to launch a Farsi TV equivalent for now, essentially because of budgetary constraints.
In addition, a dozen Los Angeles-based opposition television stations are broadcasting into Iran via satellite.
The stations, most of them supporters of the son of the late shah of Iran, have been trying to obtain U.S. government funding, most recently through a bill introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. The bill was eventually nixed during congressional budget discussions.
While the programs’ following is difficult to gauge, the regime nevertheless jammed their programs last July when they called for mass demonstrations in Iran to mark the anniversary of a student uprising in 2002. After the origin of the jamming was detected in Cuba, the administration protested and the satellite links were restored.
In order to counter Israeli broadcast, Tehran launched its own Hebrew-language radio program several months ago.
On the program with Mofaz, one caller reportedly asked when Israel and the Jews would finally repay their historical debt to Cyrus the Great and rescue the Iranian people from the dreaded ayatollahs, just as President Bush had helped the people of Iraq and Afghanistan throw off their oppressors.
Mofaz said he was not in the miracle business and wished the Iranian people success in their struggle for freedom. When callers then pleaded for Israel to intervene to help overthrow the Islamic regime, the defense minister replied that it was up to the Iranian people to determine their fate.