Satellite dishes breach the closed borders of Iran


March 20, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

TEHRAN, Iran -- After surviving U.S. economic sanctions, eight years of war with Iraq and international condemnation for its extremism, Iran's Islamic regime is confronting a challenge potentially greater than all others combined: the satellite dish.

After all, it pits the "mullahcracy" against "Oprah" and "L.A. Law."

"This is one battle the regime has no hope of winning," said a middle-aged woman addicted to mornings with "Oprah," afternoons with "Santa Barbara" and evenings with "Baywatch."

"You in America have better things to do. We don't."

An escalating war over Iran's airwaves -- a contest between strict versions of Islamic morality imposed by the mullahs, Iran's ruling clergy, and the wizardry of modern technology -- erupted two years ago when dishes first became available in Iran.

They quickly transformed Iranian habits, as well as Iranian skylines, as clusters cropped up on high-rises and apartment blocks. Tehran alone is estimated to have more than 400,000 dishes.

The regime has fought back.

It added a third channel, dominated by sports. It poured millions into new programming. It produced a game show and promises a mullah-approved sitcom soon. It even launched its own version of morning television: "Good Morning Iran."

The show has occasional light moments. It has run interviews with people on the street about their movie preferences, snippets of children's programs and attempts at film artistry on wildlife and the latest gallery fare. But a mullah lecturing on profiteering, an interview with a woman who memorized the Koran and a news item on bustling Caspian Sea port traffic are more typical fare.

The battle is really about bigger things, however. Sixteen years after the revolution that ousted the Pahlavi dynasty for its Westernizing and modernizing ways, Iranians hunger for contact with the outside world.

"It's changed my life," said a businessman named Majid as he flicked his remote between CNN International and the BBC news. "I don't feel so isolated. I know what's going on elsewhere. I feel like I'm back in the world again."

In many ways, that is exactly what the regime most fears.

In one of his last acts, the Shiite world's ranking cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Araki, who died in November at the age of 100, issued an edict blasting satellite dishes for spreading the "family devastating diseases of the West."

Now the government has taken the first step toward outlawing satellite dishes. A new law, which bans their import, manufacture, distribution or use, has cleared Iran's Parliament. It is to go into effect next month, and the regime has threatened to use helicopter patrols to track down dishes throughout Iran.

"The government has to defend Islamic and cultural values, just as it has to defend the borders," said Lotfollah Zarei Qanavati, a member of Parliament, during debate. "Spreading corruption, robbing youths of moral values, [and] decadent clothes and sexual problems are all deviations bred by satellite television."

The regime is particularly concerned about foreign television's effect on youth.

After the 1979 revolution, the ruling clergy called on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation, and they complied. The population has since almost doubled.

That surge has resulted in half of Iran's 62 million people being younger than 15; 70 percent are under 25.

Over the last year, the clergy has found itself trying to fend off the influences first of MTV and then VTV, a Hong Kong knockoff that replaced it on Iran's airwaves. The effect is widely visible. Among middle-class families, teen-agers are increasingly sporting the haircuts and dress of rappers, rockers and punkers.

Iran probably hasn't a prayer of keeping out foreign programming -- as some lawmakers argued. Technology, they stressed, will always be at least one step ahead.

Even as the law was being debated, owners began ordering new, smaller dishes that are less than 3 feet wide and adaptable for use through windows.

In the end, technology is likely to win out.

Ibrahim Yazdi, Iran's first revolutionary foreign minister, who resigned during the U.S. hostage episode, reflected: "Nobody can close the sky."

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