U.S. Official Media Outlets Engaging With Iran Are in Dire Need of Reform

07/18/2013 05:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2013

On June 14, 2013, the Iranian people elected Hassan Rowhani, the moderate cleric sometimes called "the diplomat sheikh," with a clear majority of the votes in the first round of voting as their new president. This came about as a surprise to almost every expert and foreign government as well as many Iranians.

The new president-elect's campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world. The Iranian people spoke forcefully about a need for change from the Ahmadinejad years of abyss along with all the delusional and incompetent policies, while posing a challenge to the conservative forces and their ideology. Rowhani sent clear signals during his presidential campaign that if elected he would seek to end Iran's international isolation. Aiming to build a mutual trust and favoring engagement over resistance, he said, "We have no other option than moderation." Undoubtedly, the new president will have a hard time navigating through Iran's complicated political system, but with the mandate handed to him by a massive victory, Rowhani has the opportunity to rely on the will of the Iranian people to live in peace and with dignity in the world. He has the hopes and aspirations of many young Iranians who voted for him. This will potentially create a major potential opportunity for Iran and the United States to "seize the moment to reach peace."

In the process of dialogue and confidence building between the two countries, the U.S. needs to reformulate and readdress the outlets through which American policies are portrayed in Iran.

Persian-language radio and television broadcasts are among the main tools of U.S. public diplomacy toward Iran. Over the last decade or so, the U.S. government has increased its spending on broadcasting to Iran, allocating millions of dollars of tax money, as it considers it an important public diplomacy tool to influence Iranian public opinion.

Yet both of Washington's primary outlets for such broadcasting -- Radio Farda (RF) and the Persian News Network (PNN), an arm of Voice of America (VOA) television -- have been harshly criticized since their foundation. Despite repeated statements by the U.S. government that it has no intention of forcing regime change in Iran, these media outlets, especially PNN, obviously engage in the regime change rhetoric by being deeply involved with the opposition groups, and every now and then supporting economic sanctions and policies that isolate Iran in the international arena. The PNN's Persian content reveals a very obvious bias toward Iranian politics and U.S. foreign policy.

Many of VOA's Persian News Network consultants and advisers as well as managers and employee are stuck in the past; they mostly are expatriates that hold personal grudges against the Iranian government and are disconnected from today's Iran and its culture. A handful of outside contributors are selected to provide analysis as native Farsi speakers familiar with Iranian media and politics. Although these advisers only forecast what they personally want to happen and as a matter of fact their wishes and dreams are much removed from what people living and breathing in Iran want and ask for. Despite a huge allocated budget, even in broadcasting style, the VOA Persian service resembles 1960s-era television, lacking features common in modern television such as extensive picture archives, fashionable editing, and fast-paced and interactive programs.

The underperformance of this TV network during the recent election was especially proof that the people involved in program production for it, have not been able to keep up with Iran's political dynamism.

As Karim Sadjadpour, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, mentions in his testimony on June 18, 2013 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

"Unfortunately, the Voice of America's Persian News Network (PNN) is woefully underperforming in this respect. While in just a few short years of existence BBC Persian TV has managed to become arguably the most trusted news source for Iranians -- playing an indispensable role in informing people in both the 2009 and 2013 presidential elections -- PNN has in contrast been plagued by mismanagement, unprofessionalism, and substandard productions.

... PNN's problems will not be resolved with merely a change in a few top personnel, but will require a more fundamental overhaul. Nearly everyone who has closely monitored PNN has reached the similar conclusion that it is simply not possible to attract top-tier journalistic talent and produce modern, creative, Persian-language television within the confines of the U.S. government."

Though the Iranian people used this election to speak against the direction their country has taken in the last eight years, there is no indication that they are looking for a wholesale regime change and while "crippling" sanctions have hurt the economy and are negatively taking their toll on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, they are not likely to be the spark that ignites a revolution. Iranian citizens proved that their political pragmatism is mature and that they abide by civic rules and hesitate to cause collateral damage in achieving their goals. After all they have already gone through a bloody revolution 35 years ago. Many of those who strive for freedom and justice in Iran are not idealists, detached from reality like many of the opposition groups who have been far from the reality of the Iranian society for many years now. These activists believe in a slow, nonviolent and consensual change in Iran.

The June 14, 2013 victory in Iran's presidential race was another humbling reminder that experts and analysts of Iran politics need to do their homework better. The election of Hassan Rowhani has provided both Iran and U.S. sides an opportunity to pause and rethink their approach to each other. This may prove to be decisive in bringing an end to a looming "lose-lose" confrontation.

Continuing with the current approach of the U.S. official media will be counterproductive to the mutual trust building possibility. Apart from that, it is the job of these media outlets "to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective and balanced news, information, and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas."

The way PNN has been running and performing is against the character of this nation and the values America stands for. To start the repairing process, it is necessary to start fresh from changing the government's official media to have better understanding and portrayal of what is actually going on in Iran, and thus what the Iranian people are seeking after.

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