While Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue their brutal abrogation of the rights of the Iranian people, they are inevitably looking for scapegoats to explain the continuing unrest. While the Obama administration and the "Zionists" have attracted the usual opprobrium, it is Britain that has been singled out for special treatment. Members of the British embassy staff in Tehran have been arrested, and although some have been released, several were still in custody as of June 29, facing charges of incitement. According to Iran's news agency IRNA, Iran's intelligence minister claimed "The British embassy played a crucial role in the recent unrest, both through its local staff and via media."
The Iranian autocrats are especially irate over the growing popularity of the new BBC Persian service, which has only been operating for six months, yet already has an audience of between 7 and 8 million. John Burns, writing in the New York Times on June 29, quotes a statement from the BBC's distinguished foreign correspondent John Simpson: "The big irony, of course, is that, thanks to the Persian-language TV service, the BBC does have huge influence in Iran again, just like the hard-liners in Iran have always said it did." The good news, according to Burns, is that the hardliners-despite their best efforts-are unable to put the BBC out of business because they cannot effectively jam its signals, which come from multiple space-based satellites. Neither can they get rid of the local satellite dishes that Iranians have illegally installed on their rooftops, because they are so ubiquitous and so popular.
So the question is to what extent are we witnessing a new revolution in communications that works to the benefit of dissidents? Even if the news gets out, does it really matter when the thugs control all the guns? Only time will tell. When communications with the outside world are primarily in the hands of the state, repression can go on with little international coverage. The Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was well publicized in its initial phases, but once it got under way and foreign television was banned coverage essentially dried up. The challenge for today's autocrats is that there are too many cell phones, too many computer savvy people, and, in the case of Iran, too many foreign diplomats who can report on what is going on.
The irony is that by all accounts the BBC's coverage of what is happening in Iran is remarkably even-handed and often presents the official point of view and does interviews with the current leadership. Thus, educated Iranians can choose between the objectivity of the BBC and the biased and warped coverage provided by their own state media. It is no wonder that the leadership is so angry, since this is a threat it cannot really control. It is clear that in the short run repression will prevail, but in using such brutality, the regime has weakened its international position and undermined its own legitimacy. This comes at a time when other extremist Islamic groups from the Hezbollah to the Taliban are suffering setbacks among their own local populations. There is no evidence that any hard-line Islamic government has been able to deliver goods and services to their own people, and this is the Achilles' heel of the Iranian state. Sooner or later there will be an explosion of social unrest, caused not so much by election disputes, but by economic hardship, and at this point, the regime would either have to adapt or will surely collapse from its own repressive policies.
In the meantime we can expect a flurry of activity in the U.S. Congress to fund further expansion of VOA's Persian News Network and RFE/RL Radio Farda. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman are strong supporters of such expansion, and such action should receive bipartisan support. Is this "interference" in Iran's domestic affairs? Of course it is, but we should have no qualms about this type of intervention. It is very different from offering financial support to Iranian NGOs or even Iranian resistance movements. What broadcasting does is to impose more transparency on autocratic regimes who believe their populations should be spoon-fed propaganda. Transparency and openness are anathema to Iran's dictators who know that meaningful engagement with the United States will require them to make concessions. For this reason, the Obama administration, together with the European Union, will have to rethink the value of engaging with a regime that seems incapable of compromise.
Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.