Voice of America: Iran's Fifth Column

Last month, Iran launched Press TV, an English-language television station to broadcast propaganda to the West, utilizing a network of loyal and well-paid correspondents across the world. But their task could have been made easier if they had simply translated broadcasts from the Voice of America Persian Service and Radio Farda, which are both funded by US taxpayers.

Millions of Congress-approved dollars are poured into the VOA-Persian Service and Radio Farda ostensibly to promote democracy and break the Iranian regime's overbearing censorship. However, they are facing increased scrutiny following damning reports by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the General Accountability Office (GAO), and the government's inter-agency Iran Steering Group. These reports condemned both VOA-Persian and Radio Farda for sympathy with sections of the Iranian regime and for often recycling the regime's own propaganda. The situation is so bad that some Iranians in the US have begun to question whether the journalists employed by VOA-Persian and Radio Farda are agents for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.

Some have also pointed to the inherent ethnic (Persian) chauvinism and cronyism in these broadcasts, which are alienating the non-Persian nationalities who are at least half, and by some estimates as high as two-thirds, of the total population in Iran. Activists representing a coalition of non-Persian parties campaigning for ethnic minority rights who monitor VOA Persian Service have released a study that shows that of the 132 people interviewed by VOA-Persian in May of 2007, just over two percent were from the ethnic minority groups of Kurds and Balochis. Thus, Ahwazi Arabs, Azeri-Turks, Turkmens, and others were completely excluded from these broadcasts despite the documented ongoing human rights violations against minorities by the Iranian regime.

These Farsi broadcasts (especially of VOA-Persian Service), claim Iranian minorities are controlled and managed by staunch supporters of the deposed Shah's son, Reza Pahlavi II, and share the regime's antipathy towards non-Persian ethnic groups. Reza Pahlavi and his senior advisors such as Shahriar Ahi and Draiush Homayoun are frequently—sometimes daily—featured on VOA-Persian TV.

The "guests" on these broadcasts are usually hand-picked Persian monarchists, ultra-nationalists or individuals with nationalist inclinations, who depict Iran as a Persian nation period, ignoring the claims of non-Persian Iranians who insist that Persians, despite their political dominance, are in a minority, and no more than a third of the total population. Most of the ultra-nationalists featured on VOA-Persian service believe and practice the ideology of Arian or Persian supremacy and don't believe that one can be Iranian and non-Persian at the same time.

In addition to these paid and unpaid guests who are consultants and senior advisers to Reza Pahlavi, former cabinet ministers and former diplomats of the Shah are also frequently featured on VOA-Persian TV. One was interviewed 15 times, and the rest multiple times in the single month of May alone. Aside from one Kurd and one Baloch, no members of the remaining non-Persian minorities were heard. US-funded radio and TV stations are targeting Persian monarchists, who represent an extreme minority in Iran.

Be it imperial or republican, Iran is clearly an ethnically diverse society, and ethnic dynamics have always been present throughout its history. Non-Persian ethnic groups are a major part, and play a dominant role in the current socio-political struggle for democratic transformation. The VOA broadcast should reflect this diversity. Under an ideal situation US government sponsored broadcasts should dare to be a platform for oppressed minorities and not a propaganda tool for the regime that portrays Iran as a Persian nation with no minority discontent.

Incredibly, VOA and Radio Farda refuse to broadcast news of human rights violations against ethnic and linguistic minorities, according to Iranian minority rights activists. Yet, according to Amnesty International, "Minorities are subject to discriminatory laws and practices," including restrictions on housing, the confiscation of land and property, denial of employment, and restrictions on cultural expression. This discrimination, AI adds, often results in "other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, grossly unfair trials of political prisoners before Revolutionary Courts, corporal punishment and use of the death penalty, as well as restrictions on movement and denial of other civil rights." Amnesty International's Iran desk has campaigned intensively for the release of prisoners of conscience campaigning for minority rights as well as an end to policies amounting to discrimination and persecution.

In November 2006, the European Parliament and the UN General Assembly also joined in the chorus of condemnation of the Iranian regime's discriminatory practices. In a rare display of unanimity, all the political groups in the European Parliament—from Conservatives to Communists—backed a resolution that condemned "the current disrespect of minority rights and demands that minorities be allowed to exercise all rights granted by the Iranian Constitution and international law." Further, the UN General Assembly voiced concern over "increasing discrimination and other human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities," and called on Iran to eliminate ethnic discrimination.

But a listener to VOA-Persian or Radio Farada would not hear a word against the regime's practices against minorities—especially against Arabs and Balochis&mdashwho have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, subject to population transfer, land confiscation and occasional aerial bombardment.

The State Department has oversight responsibility over VOA, but in this case they are clearly not exercising any influence to manage the overall message of the broadcasts. Undersecretary Karen Hughes, on behest of Secretary Rice, occupies a seat on the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG), the main controlling body with oversight responsibility for all US Government non-military broadcasts. It is not clear if this body is aware that the overall message implied by VOA Persian language broadcast is that the US supports a strategy of re-establishing monarchy and favors keeping intact the rule of Persian minority dominance in Iran.

In a letter to VOA Director Dan Austin, representatives of Iranian Kurds, Arabs, Azerbaijanis, Baloch, Lors and Turkmen argue that "on the rare occasions when someone from a minority group is invited to express an opinion on VOA-Persian TV, they have been subjected to an inquisition, on-and off-air, in which they are required to state their allegiance to the Iranian or Persian nation over their own ethnic group." Those who dare to describe themselves as Kurdish, Arab, Baloch, or simply refer to themselves as even Arab-Iranian, Balochi-Iranian, Kurdish-Iranian, etc., are not welcomed or deprived of further appearances. The existence of this discriminatory vetting process in a US government sponsored broadcast service is incredibly disturbing. One can only assume that it was allowed to continue because neither the VOA director nor the BBG were aware of what was and is going on.

Representatives of Iranian ethnic and religious minorities living in the US claim that VOA is violating its charter by its practical discrimination against non-Persian groups and has called for the dismissal of the Persian Service Director and key managers who are responsible for executing the current editorial policy. According to these representatives, VOA-Persian Service management argue that only a restored monarchy in Iran, or the current Persian-dominated theocratic regime are necessary to ensure Iran's territorial, cultural, and linguistic integrity.

Unless there is a radical shake-up in these US-funded TV and radio stations, they risk becoming a greater threat to US interests than Iran's Press TV will ever be. The millions of dollars spent on VOA and Radio Farda could be better spent on the dozens of financially poor grassroots radio and television stations run by genuine Iranian opposition groups that enjoy high ratings in their target ethnic audiences and beyond.

Ali Ghaderi is U.S. Representative of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan. Karim Abdian, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization, is U.S. Representative of the Ahwazi-Arab Ethnic Minority in Iran.