The Iranian Government and the Naked Ballerina

Analysts say logo furore shows depth of regime's paranoia.

An Iranian newspaper with a record of needling the regime has been forced to change its masthead because it was seen as depicting a naked ballerina, even though it was a stylised version of the title's name in Persian calligraphy.

The reaction appears to reflect a heightened sensitivity on the part of the government to the slightest hint of a challenge since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June and the rise of an opposition that claims the poll was fraudulent.

Action was taken against the newspaper Tehran Emrooz (Tehran Today) by Mohammad Ali Ramin, the associate minister of culture and Islamic guidance and one of Ahmadinejad's close advisers. Ramin issued a statement telling the newspaper to change its logo and accusing it of being part of a "soft war" against the regime.

The masthead depicted the name of the newspaper in white calligraphy on a blue background but designed to represent a dancing figure. Iranian officials said the logo resembled a "naked ballerina". A slightly amended version on the print version of the title looks less like a human figure but its website was still showing the offending version several weeks after the complaint.

Tehran Emrooz was in trouble in June 2008 when the Tehran public prosecutor banned it for "publishing articles and images insulting President Ahmadinejad". The newspaper had issued a 16-page ‎supplement criticising the administration's economic, cultural and political policies.

This time was different. The ministry of culture called Tehran Emrooz's editor-in- chief, Rasoul Babayi, to a meeting over the logo. At first, Babayi did not think the matter was serious but he said later, "When I saw our advertising hoarding ripped up on the streets, I realised the situation was getting beyond a joke."

Recent action by the government is not limited to logos. Since the opposition adopted green for its banners in the wake of last June's election, the authorities have attempted to eliminate the colour wherever it pops up. In January 2010, one of the most popular Iranian TV sports programmes, Barnameye Navad, was shut down because numerous callers voted for one of its graphics to adopt a green bar. When the programme came back on air, the green had gone.

In another live television programme, Iran Shahr, a caller congratulated the anchor for wearing a green shirt and for joining the opposition Green Movement. The call was cut off and since then the programme has been recorded.

To mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the official news agency IRNA changed its logo. In the new version, the horizontal green line of the Iranian tricolour was completely out of the frame.

There are also indications from reports in the domestic media that the green in the flag may be morphing into blue. From January 25 to February 16, at three different official occasions Ahmadinejad attended, the green bar in the flag appears to be blue.

The issue was raised by Hossein Sobhani-Nia, the deputy chairman of parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, who said, "A national flag is a symbol of unity and must not be influenced by those with wrong ideas." In response, Ahmadinejad's office said what appeared to be blue was a trick of the light.

To at least one analyst, the reaction shows an unnatural obsession on the part of the authorities.

Ervand Abrahamian, professor at City University in New York, said, "The paranoia associated with this conspiratorial view of politics is largely cross-class and cross-ideological. It is, however, widespread among Iranian political elites and intelligentsia who continue to use it as a weapon against political enemies."

A sociology professor at Tehran University, who wished to remain anonymous, believes that it is the government's mentality that makes it particularly obsessive over such details, "These types of behaviour show in the officials who are very much afraid of the Green Movement and a western conspiracy."

The Iranian people's creativity -- their only weapon against the establishment -- has also played a significant role in riling the government. Their tactics in the psychological war raging since last July have ranged from writing slogans on banknotes to plugging in electric irons when Ahmadinejad speaks on state television to try to cause power cuts.

The anonymous sociology professor at Tehran University said people are looking to find any window of opportunity to criticise the government and show their resistance.

While instability in the country has reduced Iranian officials' self-confidence, it has also caused an increase in political paranoia and sparked a vicious circle of escalating action and reaction between the government and people.

Sahar Sepehri is a journalist and media analyst based in Washington DC.

This article was published by IWPR.