When it comes to fighting the “Soft War”, Iran only has hard tools

In an interview with Etedaal News Analysis Agency on 21 April 2012, Seyed Javan Zamani, spokesman for the social affairs committee of the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis (Iran’s legislature), severely criticized the Iranian government’s current approach to dealing with illegal satellite dishes.

Illegal satellite receivers, which transmit television programming from around the world to millions of Iranian viewers, have sprung like mushrooms across rooftops throughout the country and are considered a serious issue by the regime. Among other things, satellite television programming is considered to subvert the regime’s domination of the media narrative in Iran and corrupt “Islamic social values”.

In a tacit admission that current government policy toward illegal satellite dishes is highly dependent on the use of force, Zamani criticized NAJA, Iran’s police force, for its violent attacks on private property in its crusade against satellite television, and called for the current law dealing with the issue to be repealed:

“This NAJA operation is in accordance with the law, but this law has become ineffective, and is widely broken on rooftops [where satellite dishes are usually located]; it would be wise to remove this law.”

He also tacitly acknowledged the Islamic Republic’s failure to create content that its citizens would actually want to watch, blaming the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (Iran’s main state television broadcaster) for the low quality of television programming:

“Science and progress in the world are rapidly growing and very soon no problems will be solved by rounding up satellite dishes; if it is our intention to combat satellite dishes, we must strengthen our national television programs…When half of our channels show speeches and debates and the number of useful and attractive programs is limited, anyone may [want to] use satellite dishes and foreign channels.”

He summarized his point by saying that if Iranians openly flaunted ownership of satellite dishes despite the law banning them, it would be better to repeal the law. He also expressed his belief that the main priority of the police was providing security, and that once they achieved this they could turn their attention to “marginal issues” such as satellite television.

Editor’s Note: The Islamic Republic’s current policy toward illegal satellite dishes is similar to its approach to cyberspace, where it uses heavy filtering, a cyber police force, the arrest of cyber activists, and isolation from the World Wide Web through the creation of a national intranet to control the flow of information. Cyberspace, like foreign satellite channels, is a domain for the exercise of what international relations scholar Joseph Nye has called “soft power”. Soft power achieves a state’s goals through attraction, rather than coercion or payment (i.e. hard power).

As Zamani’s interview with Etedaal reveals, the regime’s use of coercive methods is a sign of its deficit in soft power. Unlike China, which has managed to develop some domestic alternatives to foreign television programming and online social networking tools, the Islamic Republic has generally failed to create content and Internet applications that Iranians want to use in significant numbers. For a regime that believes itself to be entangled in a “soft war”, a battle with the West for the “hearts and minds” of its people, this failure could be particularly costly. Can the Islamic Republic make up its soft power deficit, or is it condemned to continuing its purely coercive methods?