Down with music. Up with ideas.
Iran looms intractable on America's radar, while the Bush administration casts about for nonmilitary weapons to use against it. Although President Bush insists that we are in a war of ideas with Iran, he has yet to unlimber some of America's most potent instruments to fight it. Chief among these should be the Persian-language broadcasts of Radio Farda. But, like most of America's international broadcasters, the station has fallen into the public diplomacy trap of advocating for America rather than stimulating debate within the targeted society.
Originally intended by Congress to operate as Radio Free Iran, the station was abruptly morphed into Radio Farda ("Tomorrow" in Persian) in 2002. It now broadcasts chiefly music and American popular culture aimed at Iran's kids. Mostly gone is the "ideas" menu--history, culture, religion, economics, law, human rights, labor, business, critical thinking--employed to great effect during the Cold War by its parent organization, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, whose intended listeners were critical elites and the populations that supported them.
To become an effective instrument in the war of ideas, Radio Farda should be completely overhauled, not just tinkered with. Six strategies are required, all of them based on proven RFE/RL choices and methods. Strategy One: Question the regime's legitimacy. Iran's noxious regime will survive so long as it retains legitimacy among those most likely to seek to change it. America's communications strategy should chip away at this legitimacy by describing and analyzing the nature of the regime from many angles.
It would contest the regime's claim to Islamic legitimacy. Direct involvement in politics by Islamic clerics has traditionally been frowned upon in Iran, a point made frequently by many Iranian theologians and ayatollahs.
It would discredit the clerics as sources of moral authority. Pervasive corruption at all levels of government is public knowledge, and it is increasingly associated with the ruling clerical establishment in the mind of the public.
And a sound strategy would rebut the regime's anti-Westernism, which is intensifying as a source of its legitimacy. It would emphasize the great historical attachments of Iran to the West and, particularly, the mutual, and mutually beneficial, interpenetration of Persian and Western culture. The aim must be to deny traction to anti-Westernizing influences.
Strategy Two: Highlight the leadership's disunity. Iran's regime is at its strongest when its leaders are united. A targeted communications strategy would highlight disagreements among leaders that we know to exist, underlining divisions, straining friendships, and endangering alliances. It would give special attention to those who break ranks. (Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that his rise to power in the crumbling Soviet Union was due in large part to Radio Liberty's intensive reporting of his activities.) The strategy would focus on revealing controversies that may not exist openly but that are endemic to the regime's view of the world and the policies by which it articulates its vision.
Strategy Three: Highlight threats to Iran's culture. For Iranians of most stripes, the sanctity and salience of their historic culture, and its preeminence among world cultures, is of high importance. A successful communications strategy would describe how this preeminence is endangered and in decline. Examples of mediocre cultural products (in literature, music, poetry, art, films), made more mediocre by Iran's isolation from the rest of the world and the intellectual straitjacket enforced by the regime, could be discussed to make a powerful point: Iran's historic culture is deteriorating in Iran itself, with the only advances taking place outside the mother country. During the Cold War, Radio Liberty's strategy of stressing the gains of Russian culture outside Russia--for example through movie reviews and readings by noted authors in exile--had a sobering impact on its listeners. Iran, where virtually everything is viewed through the prism of culture, is an even more resonant milieu for such a strategy.
Strategy Four: Describe Iran's isolation, economic decline, and growing lack of competitiveness. A targeted communications strategy should draw attention constantly to the economic and social costs of Iran's isolation from the world. It would emphasize that Iran is embarking on a catastrophe in science and technology, partly because of isolation but also because the educational system no longer supports such pursuits. It would make the case that Iran is missing out on globalization. Take away Iran's oil (which accounts for 90 percent of exports) and you have a failed state. As much as 50 percent of the rural population and 20 percent of the urban population live below the poverty line. This places Iran in competition with Pakistan (34 percent poverty rate) for the distinction of being the poorest country in Asia.
An effective communications strategy would take aim at failing "Islamic economics" that is dragging Iranians away from the globalization sweeping the rest of the world. It would point out that for Iranians poverty and demography are converging. Unemployment among the young averages 35 percent. Things are especially dire for Iran's young women, who suffer an unemployment rate of 50 percent, despite being easily the best educated in the Middle East. The prospects of the massive youth cohort are not bright, and they know it. Moreover, with half a million college graduates joining the ranks of the unemployed each year, things are getting worse, even without the palpable political alienation of this key demographic. These people don't need popular music. They need, and want, powerful ideas for change.
Strategy Five: Build critical/pragmatic thinking. Islamic education is inflicting a knockout punch on critical thinking skills. This is happening in most parts of the Islamic world, including Iran, where Islamic precepts permeate every level of the educational system, including the hard sciences. A communications strategy would focus on generating and strengthening pragmatic thinking and decision-making throughout the population, but especially among young people. To this end, the strategy would emphasize programs and topics that instill listeners with ways of thinking about problems that the regime currently proscribes or for which it insists on "Islamic solutions."
Strategy Six: Empower alternative power centers with new ideas. Like all complex states, Iran has a number of real and potential power centers--regional, labor, ethnic, professional, institutional, military, even religious. A focused communications strategy would aim to challenge the regime's ability to suffocate these centers in its ideological embrace. A successful strategy would provide the ideas to encourage potential power centers and leaders to develop stronger profiles, advance unique demands, and compete for power. The Eastern European and Soviet cases are instructive in this regard--think of the free trade union, Solidarity. None of the Soviet-bloc regimes proved able to survive even modestly persistent challenges from alternative power centers.
President Bush has incessantly asserted that fighting the war of ideas is his top priority, but he seems not to understand that public diplomacy, which aims to make people like America, is not the solution. It's time he got serious about the war of ideas and unleashed Radio Farda.
This article originally appeared in the December 18, 2006, Weekly Standard.