Thursday, June 08, 2006

Beacon No. 89: Iran Broadcasting in Overdrive


A couple weeks back in “Airwave Blitz on Iran,” the Chicago Tribune covered the adventures of Luna Shad, the beautiful Persian-American broadcaster who is the public face of Next Chapter. Shad hosts this Voice of America-produced program from Washington for an Iranian audience; hopefully her looks will attract Persians who will then watch the program’s blend of news and entertainment:

Although it's probably little more than an educated guess, U.S. officials say up to 2 million Iranians may be watching Shad's 30-minute broadcast, "Next Chapter," as she introduces a story about underground garage bands. It follows her piece on a political psychologist who dissects Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad along with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein.

"Next Chapter" is aimed at Iran's youth. But the demographics aren't about appealing to advertisers. The show's sponsor, the U.S. government, is trying to foment change in Iran.

As much as I might disagree with President Bush’s Middle East policies, I would still bristle if I saw an anchor on the BBC or Al-Jazeera interviewing a psychologist comparing him with foreign dictators; I don’t think this is an effective avenue for American broadcasting to pursue. But there’s a larger problem with Next Chapter and other U.S. efforts to influence Persian opinion:

These efforts could receive something between the $56 million just allotted by the House and the $75 million allotted by the Senate in their respective emergency spending bills. At the $75 million level, the bill (once it’s reconciled) would mean $15 million for democracy-promotion programs, $20 million for “surrogate” news media, $30 million for Radio Farda and programs like Next Chapter, and the remaining $10 million to other activities the Trib didn't specify.

Normally I would applaud these massive increases in funding for programs to win Iranian hearts and minds; the democracy-promotion figure alone is 10 times what it was three years ago.

Except for one thing: These numbers reek of either panic or ground-laying.

Panic is natural; decades of U.S. effort haven’t managed to separate the Iranian people from their leadership sufficiently to cause regime change, and now President Ahmadinejad thumps his chest by putting words like “uranium” and “Israel” in close proximity.

Of course the U.S. should increase its efforts at this critical moment in Iran’s relations with the West. I only worry that the sudden sharp boost in funding for these programs is Washington saying, “We have nothing on the ground”—no other ways of influencing the Iranian people or measuring their or their government’s intentions. It would be unfortunate if the only tool in the toolbox is international broadcasting, although an intelligence veteran I met at a conference recently assured me and others that the CIA is heavily focused on developing human assets and recruiting more overseas, and Iran must certainly be a center of such recruitment.

The ground-laying possibility is more ominous. One can imagine planners at DoD drawing two neat arithmetic or even geometric curves on a chart: A rising line that represents the number of Iranians exposed to messages of American benevolence over time, intersecting a falling line that represents the number of U.S. casualties during a given military campaign.

This would make some sense in the world of consumer branding, where the number of “brand impressions” made—100,000 cars driving past a billboard in downtown San Francisco equals 100,000 brand impressions—is a key measure of an advertising campaign’s impact and the likelihood that people will try the advertised product or service. But Nielsen ratings, or their Persian equivalents if they exist, are likely to be a poor predictor of receptiveness to an invading army or the likelihood of Iranians helping rather than killing a downed U.S. pilot.

Only if the recent larger budget numbers for Luna Shad’s program and other efforts directed at Iran are maintained over years will I start to have some confidence that the U.S. is following a long-term vision for public diplomacy in Persia, rather than overreacting to Ahmadinejad’s bluster or paving the way for whatever military operations the administration might deem necessary.

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