Narges Bajoghli has written a fascinating book about her research into the work of pro-government media and film producers inside Iran. The book is called Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic, and it just came out last week. I have read shorter pieces of analysis from Prof. Bajoghli before, and I have occasionally cited her in some of my posts here, so I knew the book would be worth reading. I finished it a few days ago, and it does not disappoint. Najoghli presents a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced account of her subjects.
The book introduces us to many of the people responsible for creating pro-regime media and shows us how they operate, the divisions and disagreements among them, and what motivates them. One of the questions that Bajoghli seeks to answer is how the older generations of regime supporters are attempting to “transmit the commitment of their revolutionary project” to later generations, and along the way she shows us that there is a significant generational divide between the early supporters of the regime with their experience of the war with Iraq and the newest generation that have been coming up in the last ten to fifteen years. This is important research that allows us to understand how different regime supporters see their own system and their country, and it points to divisions that exist inside that system that are usually invisible to outside viewers. It also shows how the regime’s media producers have adapted over the last decade to appeal to the wider Iranian public with nationalistic messages and it tells how they are making use of a variety of media to deliver that message in ways so that the audience doesn’t realize that it is a product of the state.
One of the interesting splits in the ranks of these regime media producers was generational. The older men that Bajoghli interviewed understood their membership in the Basij in terms of defending the country against invasion, and they held the newer members in low esteem because they saw them mainly as opportunists out for personal advancement. One war veteran said of them: “For us, it was a matter of life and death. These kids are ideological and they don’t even know why.” (p. 47) Interestingly, the older Basijis that Bajoghli met refused to let their children join the organization, which they saw as a step down from the status that they had acquired for themselves and their families.
During her research, Bajoghli spoke to many veterans of the war with Iraq, and during her conversations with them she found that they would switch between their real, honest accounts of their wartime experience when they had grown to trust her and would then slip into an “official” mode when on camera. This is hardly unique to the Iran-Iraq war, but it is something that can be overlooked when the “official” line is the only one that is permitted to be heard: “The official narrative of the war has stayed the same throughout the past three decades. On the other hand, the real stories are characterized by secrecy, revelation, novelty, and anger.” (p. 56)
The book’s title refers to the anxieties of power, and one of the anxieties that Bajoghli identifies is a recurring fear of Iran “turning into Syria.” As she says in the introduction, “Syria became a metaphor for what Iran’s military elite sought to avoid at all costs.” (p.4) This is echoed again in another conversation recounted later in the book in which one of the producers said, “We have to stand strong or we’ll turn into Syria.” (p. 86) For regime supporters, the fear that a similar conflict could tear apart their own country seems to be very real.
The gap between regime supporters and the majority of the country’s young people is a recurring theme in the book. The regime media producers recognize that the gap is there, and they are frequently at a loss with how to bridge it. One of the problems that the producers have is not just that they don’t know the right way to convey their message, but that the pro-regime message that they have been trying to promote leaves many people cold and alienates them. That is why they have increasingly resorted to reframing their message in terms of nationalism and appeals to defend the country rather the the regime or the revolution as such.
Iran Reframed is an insightful introduction to a side of Iran that most of us know little or nothing about, and anyone interested in learning more about media and politics in contemporary Iran would benefit from it.