Friday, March 09, 2007

Are Farsi-language broadcasts helping?

Washington Times

March 9, 2007

Today, as Washington grapples with the threats posed by Iranian support for terrorism and efforts to develop nuclear weapons, it appears that American policy-makers are being forced to choose between very bad options: 1) taking military action against Iranian nuclear sites and other regime targets, or 2) continuing to push for passage of largely unenforceable U.N. resolutions and hoping that if the regime develops nuclear weapons, we would somehow be able to use some form of "containment" to deal with the problem.

We find ourselves in this untenable position today due in part to our neglect of alternatives such as the development of radio stations oriented towards taking the American message directly to the Iranian people. In his position as ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Information, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has made it his mission to reform what he views as a largely dysfunctional system of broadcasting to Iran. In a letter to President Bush last month, Mr. Coburn made a powerful case that Radio Farda, which broadcasts music and other entertainment programs to Iran, and the Voice of America's Farsi-language service "may actually be harming American interests rather than helping."

As chairman of the subcommittee last year, Mr. Coburn held a hearing on the Iranian nuclear question, in which lawmakers heard testimony from Amirabbas Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident who wants the United States to publicly support regime change in his country. Imprisoned in 2002 after writing a book denouncing Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he managed to escape Iran three years later. Mr. Fakhravar told the subcommittee in July that Radio Farda and VOA "are presently giving more assistance to the regime than to the dissident movement" in Iran by touting fraudulent efforts to institute reforms within the Islamist regime. Subsequent complaints from native Farsi speakers who monitor U.S. broadcasts to Iran and a report commissioned by the State Department and National Security Council mirrored Mr. Fakhravar's testimony. The federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) disputes the criticisms and periodically provides examples of broadcasts it describes as balanced. But according to Mr. Coburn, the board has not conducted a systematic review of all content broadcast into Iran and is limited in its ability to oversee broadcasting content because there are no English-language transcripts of U.S. international broadcasting. Along with his letter to the president, Mr. Coburn attached several transcripts of VOA's Farsi-language coverage of the State of the Union address. One of the two guests provided by VOA, Dr. Mansour Farhang, "uses a Farsi term best described as 'baseless statement' to describe your State of the Union speech," Mr. Coburn wrote. "Dr. Farhang's hostility is further expressed when he describes your Iraq policy as having 'no connection to reality.' " Dr. Farhang then went on to blame the United States for increased violence and instability in Iraq. The only other guest, who was supposed to balance the criticism, said he agreed with this harsh assessment of U.S. policy.

All of this is particularly tragic in view of the fact that the Iranian government would appear to be quite vulnerable to the kinds of pressures that U.S. radio broadcasts, properly done, could help generate. Public-opinion polls taken in recent years suggest that an overwhelming majority of Iranians admire the United States and/or want to bring down the Islamist regime in Tehran, and despite a brutal secret-police, visitors to the country frequently say they have little trouble finding Iranians who want to be rid of clerical rule. Iran has been convulsed by unrest and violence, particularly in the southeastern Baluchistan region, where last month Sunni radicals killed 11 members of the elite Revolutionary Guards in a bus bombing. On Feb. 19, one week after the bombing, the regime televised the hanging of a man it said was responsible for the attack. It would be a positive thing if BBG were offering Iranians a real alternative -- something better than the likes of both Dr. Farhang and public hangings.

But, that does not appear to be happening today. As Mr. Coburn wrote in his letter to the president: "Our international broadcasting needs serious management and accountability reforms. Given the international challenges and threats to our national security, I believe it is vital that this important public diplomacy does not undermine your role as our lead diplomat. The status quo should not continue."

And if BBG thinks it is getting a bum rap from Mr. Coburn, it would do well to conduct its own comprehensive study of its Farsi-language broadcasts and set the record straight.

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