Cracking IRI’s Curtain

Recently, I asked Voice of America Persian News Network Director Ramin Asgard to share his views on the organization, discuss the challenges he faces, and describe the experiences and personal background that prepared him for the job.

There are differences of opinion in Washington regarding Iran policy—military posture, pace of sanctions, level of dialog, etc. To what extent is VOA theoretically immunized against short-term policy fluctuations resulting from the seasonal climates of Washington politics? What are the challenges of maintaining this ideal in practice?

This is an excellent question. The VOA is part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is an independent U.S. government agency responsible for all non-military United States Government (USG) international broadcasting. The law governing VOA mandates that we maintain a “firewall” between VOA and the rest of the US government, to preserve VOA’s editorial independence from such policy influences as you mention. In practice, outside pressures from within the U.S. government are very rare. The pressures, however, on VOA-PNN from the broader “Iran policy community” are ever present.

It is worth considering why PNN consistently comes under such close scrutiny. In my view, because the U.S. lacks virtually any other communication channel to the Iranian people (no diplomatic, commercial, security, touristic, and very limited cultural and academic ties) VOA-PNN (and to a lesser extent Radio Farda) tend to take on charges and issues far beyond their intended mandate. Essentially, VOA Persian and Radio Farda serve as the U.S. government’s primary communication channel and lifeline to the people of Iran, and because VOA Persian produces television, and is in Washington, it comes under far more scrutiny. Because of this de facto role as a conduit to Iran, and operating within the politically-charged arenas of U.S.-Iran tensions, Washington politics, and buffeted by the complex motivations and input from the large Iranian diaspora, PNN often finds itself under intense scrutiny for real or perceived shortcomings along a vast spectrum of agendas.

In addition, many Iranians inside Iran tend to consider all VOA content and even internal activities of PNN as directly representing U.S. policy toward Iran, and sometimes exceedingly complex theories arise over what signal the latest VOA guest decision or personnel action portends for Iran’s future. Under this level of attention, virtually all important editorial and production decisions are subject to debate and interpretation. Matching our mission and mandate to the complex context we operate within is an ongoing challenge. We recognize the critical importance of achieving the best possible performance for VOA-PNN under these conditions, and continue working tirelessly toward achieving our mission goals.

In the Washington Times and elsewhere Journalist Kenneth Timmerman has consistently criticized VOA Persian for not doing enough to undermine the IRI, and has called for VOA Persian to be transformed or shut down. What is your reaction Mr. Timmerman’s criticisms?

I welcome all constructive criticism, and those that offer outside perspectives on U.S. government operations. Serving as the American public’s check on their government’s operations is a fundamental aspect of responsible journalism. We believe we are doing a great deal to improve programming, enhance access to our broadcasts, and to bring truth to the Iranian people – these measures will go a long way toward advancing the key U.S. national security goals of improving communication to the Iranian people and increasing pressure for accountability on the IRI. Can we do better? Of course, and we are working hard to enhance every aspect of our mission.

VOA Persian has lately undergone conspicuous changes in staff and contributors. For example, Mr. Jamsheed Chalangi is no longer with VOA, the dismissal and rehiring of Ms. Rudy Bakhtiar has puzzled many VOA watchers, and Mr. Ahamd Batebi, Mr. Kourosh Sehati and Dr. Mohsen Sazegara enthusiasts have voiced objections to the firings. There are other examples. Would you offer explanations for the recent staffing/contributor changes? Does this reflect an overall change in the needs of the organization or did these individuals fall short of meeting established VOA requirements?

We appreciate the interest of our viewers and outside observers regarding VOA-PNN operations. As much as I would like to provide further information to your readers on these important matters, these are internal federal government personnel issues, and under the provisions of the Privacy Act and other U.S. government regulations, I regret that I am not able to discuss these issues further here.

Is there any basis to rumors that Parazit staff hasn’t been getting along? Should we expect Mr. Kambiz Hosseini to continue his “anchor” role at Parazit?

Thank you for this question. I am sure your readers noticed that Parazit aired an original program on Friday, December 16, with Kambiz Hosseini hosting. We at VOA-PNN are very proud of the success of Parazit, which is among the most successful shows in VOA history, as well as among the most influential programs in the Persian language anywhere. We look forward to Parazit continuing its amazing success into 2012 and beyond, and have plans to actually expand Parazit in 2012 – more details on this soon.

How do you measure the success of VOA inside Iran? For example, how do you know that there are 9 million viewers? How do the various VOA programs rank in order of popularity inside Iran? Parazit, Shabahang etc.

This is of course, one of our biggest challenges. To attempt to assess our audience numbers, we do polling from outside Iran among travelers, as well as phone interviews of Iranians inside Iran. As with any polling in a closed society, the results are subject to considerable distortions due to fear of reprisals and suspicion regarding the sources of the polling. Nonetheless, we know we are having an impact through many anecdotal contacts directly from Iran via social media and other channels. It is important to point out that the IRI does everything it can to make our programming as inaccessible as possible to the Iranian people.

For example, they jam our broadcasts, block our website, and interfere with our communication with Iranians inside Iran. Recently, the IRI made any collaboration with international broadcasters including VOA-PNN illegal, and those engaging in such activity are now subject to prosecution for espionage. More broadly, we know that the Iranian government – given their level and variety of interference with our activities – is exceedingly anxious about our level of influence inside Iran.

For example, the IRI devotes enormous resources to undermining and discrediting all elements of U.S. national power involving Iran – and VOA-PNN is no exception. In fact, we are a high priority target. Starting and spreading rumors about VOA-PNN, disrupting or introducing disinformation on our social media sites, and publicizing and magnifying internal VOA-PNN matters are all well-established IRI practices which aim to systematically damage our capacity to accomplish our mission of effectively reaching the Iranian people. Examples of these practices abound, but I will not repeat them here.

For our part, we have continued to make steady progress despite these malign actions by the IRI, and remain committed to moving steadily forward with our critical mission regardless of these distractions.

How does VOA deal with jamming and other obstacles that the IRI creates to interfere with VOA broadcasts?

The Iranian government’s illegal jamming of our broadcasts is part of an overall effort by the IRI to isolate Iranians from each other and from contact with the outside world. In addition to satellite jamming, the IRI blocks the web, persecutes online activists, engages in aggressive cyberwar activity, and restricts in many other ways Iranians’ freedom of expression. Taken together, these measures constitute an “electronic curtain” the Iranian government has built around the Iranian people.

We at VOA and BBG have worked closely with our colleagues elsewhere in the U.S. government and relevant outside bodies to counteract this “electronic curtain”. We are working on a comprehensive effort to pierce the electronic curtain and counteract the IRI’s efforts to enforce Iranians’ isolation behind this curtain. Satellite broadcasting is by far the most viewed form of communication with Iran, and as it lies within BBG’s express mandate, BBG/IBB/VOA is focusing on this element of the electronic curtain.

Meanwhile, others are focused on Internet Freedom aspects, human rights aspects of denying Iranians access to information, potential sanctions against third parties supporting facilitating technology, and several other measures. For now, here are some links to relevant online content–Secretary’s interview with , and an article on “electronic curtain.”

Parazit’s Kambiz Hosseini recently claimed on Aljazeera that VOA does not censor the content of this popular program. On the other hand, former VOA translator, Melody Navab-Safavi, has alleged that VOA fired her for expressing anti Iraq War sentiments in her privately produced music video, Demokracy. In light of VOA’s purpose to comply with the “broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” how can VOA also follow its mandate to be “accurate, objective and comprehensive,” without running into contradictions?

We are greatly honored to have both of these talented individuals working alongside their dedicated and gifted colleagues at VOA-PNN. We work daily to reconcile the challenges of operating a media organization which is also a U.S. government entity. Our goal is to offer as broad and uncensored a range of viewpoints as possible to our viewership in Iran. In so doing, we use our mission goals, the broad foreign policy objectives you note, as well as journalistic standards as guidelines.

Some people believe that, despite a late start, BBC Persian is more influential in Iran than VOA. In this context, they use descriptions like “more professional” and “more objective.” What is your reaction to these opinions?

We view BBC Persian as a friendly competitor, and welcome their success. It certainly is no easy matter to reach an audience in Iran given the incredible obstacles. There are differences in structure and organization between us and BBC, and we both work to achieve success within our current organizational structure. Professionalism and objectivity is a goal for both of us and VOA-PNN continues to work toward achieving the best possible level of both.

You have served in key Foreign Service positions, for example you have been the Director of the Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, and adviser to General David Petraeus at CENTCOM. What aspects of your past professional experience best prepared you for your role as the Director of VOA Persian? What challenges at VOA Persian do you feel you were most unprepared for?

During my career, I have served as Persian-speaking consular officer, Iran desk officer, Iran political and economic reporting officer, and later as an Iran Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy Officer, and as you mentioned, as Director of the Iran RPO in Dubai and as Political Advisor to the CENTCOM Commander. During these tours I interacted with thousands of Iranians in multiple countries, studied Iran and its rich culture, history, literature, and political and economic environments intensively, and worked on the entire range of the policy issues involving Iran within the U.S. government.

While I greatly enjoyed working on issues and regions other than Iran as well, particularly my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt compelled whenever called upon to offer my professional expertise and personal commitment to advancing U.S. policy on Iran. This range of experiences showed me virtually all aspects of the Iran issue, and given this range of experience and my personal determination to support effective policy toward Iran, I felt I was well prepared substantively to address the challenge of communications to Iran.

In particular, I recognized the complex interaction between U.S. foreign policy and U.S. public diplomacy; the difficulties inherent in working on a closed society, the complex domestic political factors which influenced foreign policy, and the profound challenge of achieving communication or policy outcomes in the absence of reliable, secure access to the people of the other country. I brought these strengths to the position, and have greatly benefited from the guidance and support of numerous experienced professionals and advisors on the technical and craft elements of television, radio, and internet content development.

One issue that was a surprise was the panoply of outside “watchdogs”, “experts”, and other voices that sought to influence the BBG, VOA, Congress, and other parts of the USG regarding VOA-PNN operations. Some are helpful and constructive, others perhaps less so. It is a measure of how important international broadcasting to Iran is that so many observers want us to be effective – we appreciate this and are working hard to be so.

Would you relate the story of your Persian lineage? What part of Iran do your ancestors go back to? Please describe your interests in matters Iranica, for example music, literature, history. Where did you learn to speak Farsi?

I was born in Iran and came to the U.S. with my parents in 1971 as a young child. I do not discuss my family history in detail, even though I am intensely proud of my Iranian heritage, because I do not wish to place any of my family remaining in Iran in any danger. I grew up without speaking Farsi as my parents were medical residents our first several years in the U.S., and I grew up in a part of the U.S. with relatively few other Iranians. I have lived in the U.S. for over 40 years.

As an Iranian- American, I was always aware of my Iranian identity, and despite the challenges of growing up in post hostage-crisis America in the 1980s, I was always very proud of my heritage. I read widely as many young Iranian-Americans do about Iran, and learned of the grandeur and depth of Iranian civilization. I traveled to Iran only once – in the late 1970’s – and have not been back since. One of the fundamental reasons I joined State in the late 1990’s and became a diplomat was to try and assist in bringing positive change to Iran, and while there are no easy paths forward, I feel compelled to keep trying.

I first studied Farsi in my early 20’s to be able to read my father’s novels and poetry. Later, I joined the diplomatic corps of the U.S. Department of State and learned more Farsi to conduct consular interviews. I practiced further to be able to work as a political officer, and use it daily at VOA-PNN. I still have a long way to go to master my beautiful native tongue in a manner befitting its splendor.

I view my service at VOA-PNN as an honor and a duty given its vital importance to both America and the Iranian people. Like many Iranian-Americans, I sometimes experience the sadness that comes from such a fundamental rift between the two sides of my identity, but earnestly believe that only through courage, unity, sacrifice and persistence by those who really care about a better future for Iran will we ever see positive change.

I see tremendous promise in the youth among the Iranian-American and Iranian populations. Along these lines, I enjoy mentoring young Iranian-Americans, and urge them to consider careers in public service for their great adopted homeland America, which has given them so much opportunity and freedom, as well to appreciate the importance of preserving their proud Iranian heritage as the modern bearers of the promise of one of the world’s great civilizations.

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