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by Bill Samii

Election Underscores Bitter Divisions In Iran

Iranian President Ahmadinejad came to office with a reputation for social conservatism, and he has tried to clean up what he and his supporters see as the permissive social atmosphere that emerged during the administration of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. A conflict between the executive branch and the state broadcasting agency over a popular television series demonstrates that Ahmadinejad's policies do not have unanimous approval -- not even among the groups in Iran known for their conservative viewpoints.

Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Safar-Harandi said in mid-November that the government will censor some of the current programs that are being broadcast. "We shall not permit the broadcasting of films that blatantly contradict the wishes and goals of a religious people," he said. He went on to criticize the previous administration's efforts in this regard, saying the supervisors of movie-making "needed to be reformed" and accusing them of not accepting that "this is a country shaped by the lord of the age."

In December, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council headed by President Ahmadinejad instructed the state radio and television agency -- the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) -- not to play Western or "decadent" music. It was not only music that concerned Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Cultural Revolution Council also instructed the IRIB to bring all its programs in line with the new cultural policies.

It was during this time that Ahmadinejad spoke out against what is arguably the most-popular television show in Iran: "The Nights of Barareh," a nightly comedy that is set some 70 years ago in a fictional village. Its clever writing addresses issues that viewers relate to, such as government corruption, bogus elections, and women's rights, and there is a grim-faced gendarme who censors the local newspaper. Even "enrichment" comes up as a topic when a Westerner persuades the locals that he is able to enrich their chickpeas but, in fact, he only soaks them in water to increase their weight. The program also touches on social issues, with the village divided into upper and lower halves that resemble the class divisions of Tehran. It also includes a prominent homosexual character.

Iran's popular TV sitcom "The Nights of Barareh" accused of having "populist implications and demagogic repercussions"

Coming at the same time as the executive branch decrees on media content, and in line with the political conservatism of IRIB and its leadership, one could reasonably expect the program to be dropped from the schedule. Instead, IRIB chief Ezatollah Zarghami visited the show's set in December and praised the show and its cast. This visit and Zarghami's comments -- all of which featured prominently on that evening's newscast -- were a slap in the president's face.

Ahmadinejad's supporters reacted angrily. Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham, protested that the IRIB gave more attention to Zarghami's visit to the Barareh set than it gives to the president's activities. She accused IRIB of distorting and censoring news about the president, and she warned Zarghami and other IRIB managers to prepare to face public wrath. Rajabi's accusations appeared on several websites as well, and she added vague accusations that unnamed websites were connected with the Israeli secret service agency Mossad and the CIA.

An editorial in the hard-line daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" also expressed outrage over The Nights of Barareh, which it accused of having "populist implications and demagogic repercussions." The editorial criticized Zarghami's visit to the program's set, and it expressed shock and horror that not only is the program being transmitted on IRIB's international Sahar network, but it is even being shown with subtitles in foreign languages. The editorial said people are using state resources to "wage war on the revolution and carry out the evil plot of 'derevolutionizing.'"

This may be a conflict that the Ahmadinejad administration cannot win, but it shows no sign of going back on its policy objectives. The budget submitted by Ahmadinejad in January is a manifestation of this emphasis on revolutionary ideals and an Islamic revival, with the amount of money allocated to religious institutions and outreach entities increasing while the amount dedicated to political parties actually decreasing.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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Albion Monitor   February 20, 2006   (

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