Iran in Ferment II

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After an Iranian court sentenced the reformist academic Hashem Aghajari to death last month, the largest and most sustained student demonstrations in years erupted in Tehran. As they grew, day after day, U.S.-operated Radio Azadi, or Radio Freedom, was their favorite medium. Every day, student leaders would call by cellphone from the roiling campuses to the radio's headquarters in Prague and narrate the latest developments live. Each night the radio would broadcast a roundtable discussion, patching together students and journalists in Tehran with exiled opposition leaders to discuss where the reform movement was going. So instrumental to the rebellion-in-the-making did the radio become that pro-regime counter-demonstrators recently held up a placard reading "Who does Radio Azadi talk to?" -- a taunt taken by the station's staff as a badge of honor.

The protest movement, now five weeks old, rolls on, spreading from students to workers and from Tehran to other cities. Some see parallels to the popular movements that overthrew the Communist regimes of Europe in 1989 -- with a big dose of help from U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe. In this case, however, the tottering dictatorship has gotten a big break: Two weeks ago, Radio Freedom abruptly disappeared from the air. Iranians were no longer able to hear firsthand reports of the protests. Instead, after two weeks of virtual silence, the broadcasts are being replaced with tunes from Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston et al.

How did the mullahs pull off this well-timed lobotomy? They didn't: The U.S. government, in the form of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, did it. In an act that mixes Hollywood arrogance with astounding ignorance of Iranian reality, the board has silenced the most effective opposition radio station in Iran at a time of unprecedented ferment. In its place, at three times the expense, the United States now will supply Iran's revolutionary students with a diet of pop music -- on the theory that this better advances U.S. interests.

"The assumption of the people who did this back in Washington is that Iranian young people, like young people in most places, don't want to hear news," says Stephen Fairbanks, the ousted director of Radio Freedom. But this is not most places -- this is Iran, where young people are leading a rebellion against a dictatorship that has stifled opposition media. The student leaders who used to phone in, Fairbanks says, now tell him that "they are losing their voice."

The "people back in Washington" Fairbanks referred to are led by Norman Pattiz, a Los Angeles-based commercial radio mogul and generous Democratic contributor who was rewarded by President Bill Clinton with an appointment to the broadcasting board. As the chairman of the board's Middle East committee, Pattiz initially focused on the Voice of America's Arabic service, which he deemed out of touch in a region where there is growing popular hostility to the United States. His solution was to replace what he called the "old-style propaganda" of VOA with Radio Sawa, a pop music station that debuted last March. Sawa broadcasts five minutes of news twice each hour, along with Whitney, Britney and a few Arabic balladeers.

The jury on Sawa is still out. The good news is that the station seems to have captured a fairly large audience in countries such as like Jordan and Dubai, where American culture is popular even if U.S. policy is not. Their argument that young Arabs in cities such as Amman and Beirut are more likely to be captured by American music than by canned documentaries is not unreasonable. What's inexplicable is the extension of that logic to Iran, where an anti-U.S. dictatorship is clinging to power through sheer brutality, and where the United States and its policies are wildly popular, especially among young people.

"We made extraordinary inroads," says Fairbanks. "Everyone started to see us as a forum. Each day there were students who would report live to us from their mobile phones. It's a measure of how bold they have become that they would do that."

"Or did."

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.