28 March 2008As part of its vigorous cultural diplomacy in neighboring countries that share its language, Iran is driving plans for a Persian-language satellite network to broadcast in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But it's unclear whether the region's viewers will tune in to shows tailored to the tastes of the Iranian leadership's arguably radical brand of Islam.
For years, Tehran has pursued vigorous "cultural diplomacy" in neighboring countries that share its linguistic roots -- namely, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Such efforts were in the spotlight this week after a March 24-25 meeting in Dushanbe of the three countries' foreign ministers. Among other issues, the ministers reportedly prepared a deal on launching a common Persian-language satellite-television network to be run jointly by all three governments.
"The common television network will start broadcasting programs in Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Tajik, and the other languages of the three countries," Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zarifi told a news conference in Dushanbe on March 25. He added that the three countries' presidents would sign the deal on the joint television project when they meet next, possibly as early as August.
Although the headquarters of the television channel would be based in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, some observers have been quick to characterize the new network as merely the latest instrument aimed at spreading Iranian influence in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and other Persian-speaking areas of Central and South Asia.
Tehran has invested in cultural ties in Tajikistan since the impoverished former Soviet republic, whose government is militantly secular, gained independence in 1991. Iran has set up a cultural center in Dushanbe that supports a variety of cultural and educational programs. Since the early 1990s, Tehran has also organized frequent cultural trips to Iran for Tajik writers, journalists, and influential intellectuals.
Journalists who have traveled to Iran in such trips say they have been encouraged by the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe to write about their journey and impressions. Tajik teachers, university professors, and doctors in recent years have been included on such trips, which are fully paid by the Iranian side.
Many Tajik writers, poets, and scientists have also had their books published in Iran. For example, Muhammadjon Shakuri, a prominent Tajik scientist, travels to Iran almost yearly on trips funded by the government in Tehran. He says he is grateful to Iran because when he fell ill recently he was taken there for two successful operations -- all expenses paid by Iran, of course.
Shakuri says Tajik intellectuals appreciate what he calls Iran's desire to strengthen cultural ties and support people who share the same language. "Many books by contemporary Tajik poets have been published in Iran, in the Arabic/Farsi alphabet," he tells RFE/RL. "Such cooperation is expanding now, and Tajikistan is welcoming it, too."
In addition to its cultural center, Tehran finances "Iranian Rooms," which have been set up in almost every university in Dushanbe. There, students and professors get free Internet access, textbooks, and daily newspapers and magazines.
The cultural center has also taken over a significant part of the Tajik National Library -- a complex long popular among students, professors, and young professionals. In recent years, Iran has also donated thousands of books in Persian, Russian, English, and other languages.
Rahmatkarim Davlat, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service, says many Tajiks believe that Tehran is pursuing a clear political agenda through its cultural programs. "Iran wants to have its supporters among influential intellectuals, and most importantly among the younger generation of Tajiks," Davlat says.
But Hamza Kamol, the head of the Tajik Cultural Foundation in Dushanbe, notes that Iran is just one of several countries that pursue a cultural agenda in the Central Asian country. "When it comes to cultural diplomacy, Iran has not done anything more than other countries, such as Russia, have been doing in Tajikistan," Kamol says.
Russia's cultural centers and embassy in Dushanbe reportedly provide financial support for Russian publications in Tajikistan, among many other activities, such as organizing Russian film festivals and art exhibitions. Likewise, the French cultural center in Dushanbe offers a library, language courses, and promotes French movies.
Turkey has also set up several Turkish-language schools, which have become popular among children from well-to-do families. By contrast, Iran has set up no such schools in Tajikistan.
Tajik authorities, meanwhile, say they support widening cultural and business ties with Iran. But there are tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular government in Dushanbe.
In the early 1990s, when supporters of the Tajik Islamic and democratic opposition briefly took control of state-run television, they began rebroadcasting Iranian programs in Tajikistan. But the government, after reasserting control over the station, quickly banned all such broadcasts, which it regarded as too religious.
Tajik authorities also have yet to register the Organization of Persian-Speaking Journalists, a group set up by Iranian and Tajik journalists and their financial sponsors in 2007. The group has reportedly applied at least eight times to the Tajik Justice Ministry for official registration. But the ministry has repeatedly refused to give the group any official permission to operate.
While Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian officials have played up plans for the new Persian-language satellite channel, many Tajik journalists and experts tell RFE/RL that they believe the project will be dead in the water. They say that despite the shared language, there are big differences among peoples in the three countries when it comes to their attitudes about culture.
For example, they say Iran would not allow television presenters and guests to appear without adhering to its strict Islamic dress code. Nor would Iran want to broadcast modern songs and movies where women are not covered head to toe. In Tajikistan, however, modern songs and dances, Western movies, and television series are extremely popular.
That is to say nothing of politics. Adolat Mirzo, a female Tajik journalist, tells RFE/RL that it would be almost impossible for the regional, state-run, Persian-language television network "to organize even an ordinary political roundtable because the three countries have totally different political lines."
While Iran has poor relations with the West, the government of Afghanistan depends on military and economic support from the United States and European Union.
Tajikistan, while desperate for economic aid from any source, has sought to strike a balance in its relations with Iran, Russia, and Western countries. Tahir Shermuhammadi, an independent Iranian-born analyst based in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Dushanbe, which gets significant financial support from Washington, "won't jeopardize its relations with the West by getting too close to Iran."
Other Tajik observers say Iran's cultural policies have actually brought about the opposite of what Tehran might have intended.
Before Iran expanded its cultural activities in Tajikistan, many Tajiks had cherished the idea of improving relations with Tehran. After all, Iranian prerevolutionary literature was popular in Tajikistan, while Iranian songs and movies -- largely created by Iranians abroad -- had attracted huge audiences.
But then the Islamic Republic of Iran started showing movies and concerts with artists covered head to toe. Coupled with Iranian publishers filling Tajik bookstores with Islamic tomes, many Tajiks say they were "disappointed."
Will the new satellite television network change their minds? It's unlikely, but stay tuned.
March 27, 2008