Narges Bajoghli spent nearly a decade studying and chatting with the men who produce media for the Islamic Republic of Iran for her debut book Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic (Stanford University Press), overhearing conversations about crafting state communications that few Iranians, much less Western scholars, ever do. Johns Hopkins Magazine spoke with Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, about the role of media in shaping the politics of any citizenry in the 21st century.
I know a handful of Iranian directors, but even then what I'm really talking about is what American or European distributors think they can sell to Western art-house audiences, not what Iranians are watching and talking about. So as someone who spent a lot of time in Tehran, what are Tehrani people your age watching and consuming as part of their everyday lives?
Iran has had a very complex and robust media environment for a very long time; it predates the Revolution. And people around my age, who were born and came of age in the post-Revolutionary sphere, they are getting their media from a variety of sources and watching things from Iran, the U.S., Europe, and Asia. They watch the latest shows and films that come out around the world—they can either watch them online or buy them for cheap from vendors who sell pirated content from around the world. One of the biggest sources of media in Iran is the internet. Even though the Iranian government tries to filter quite a bit, they haven't developed a system as comprehensive as the Chinese, and there's a robust community of computer activists who are constantly keeping up with what the government is doing and putting out different VPNs that people can buy for as low as one dollar. So people get news from the internet, as well as messaging apps, such as Telegram and WhatsApp, and Instagram.
Another big source is satellite television. There's a very robust Persian language satellite ecology that is mostly funded from abroad that gets broadcast to Iran—some of which, over the years, has become quite good, producing entertainment that people in Iran are actively following. And there's a very large filmmaking industry in Iran itself. So it's like young folks here—people are getting their entertainment and news from various places.
How did you come to see media production as a fruitful space for research?
In the preface I speak about a regime filmmaker whose film broke all these box office records. I thought there's something here that I need to be paying attention to. Scholars, journalists, and people who were following Iran for many years had been dismissing anything that was produced by the state as propaganda. And although there's truth to that, you can't just dismiss propaganda because you don't agree with it or you don't like it. It is doing some work. And that film was resonating to a much broader audience.
The more I did the research, the more I realized that you really can't study politics without studying media because the state, in a variety of ways, either directly or indirectly is always communicating with its population and trying to convince them of some policies or some narratives over others. But, obviously, human beings are complex, and the most sophisticated propaganda filmmaker in the world will not be able to elicit the types of responses that he or she has in mind. People think about different things when they're consuming media. We're not robots. So for me it became really interesting to figure out what were the pro-regime cultural producers imagining, what were they making, and how, as much as possible that I could glean, was it being picked up.
In the book you follow three regime media producers. What was it about them that made you feel they'd be good subjects to explore these ideas?
Iran is a country that's been so misunderstood over the past 40 years since the Revolution, and I wanted to write something that would be able to be read by a broader audience. So I had to think about different narrative tactics that would allow me to tell stories from my research that weren't just looking at media but also informed by social class, cultural capital, and these different theoretical threads together. I tried various formats—I rewrote this entire manuscript four or five times until I was able to home in on these three figures. The book goes into the work of many filmmakers, but as a narrative ploy, I decided to let the three filmmakers that I highlight guide the reader.
I ask because as a general reader who is interested in film and contemporary politics, I know I'm ignorant about Iran, but reading the book made me aware of how vast my ignorance is. In the first chapter you talk about the debates taking place between regime filmmakers who served in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War and younger generations, who don't know the same stories about the Revolution. It reminded me that Iran in its current state is so young. Did you anticipate this level of political and aesthetic debate?
I wasn't expecting the level of heated back-and-forth that I felt within their own ranks at all. That's something that came as a big surprise to me. And the more that I witnessed it and the more that I was around it, the more I realized it had a generational quality. It really was these younger folks saying, "We need to be more loyal to our principles," and the older folks saying, "Look, those principles, in reality, only get you so far."
When I took a step back I thought, well, this is a generational shift you see everywhere. The ones who are the most idealistic and passionate tend to be younger folks. And by the time you go through life you tend to moderate yourself a little bit more based on experiences. And like you said, those who are in power today are not that old—the clerical elite is old, but below them, they're not, they're in their 50s. And for them to be having so many disagreements with those in their ranks who are younger, I found really fascinating. I do think it goes back to the experiences they had at war. It's so much easier to talk about confrontation when you've never experienced war than it is when you've had to fight in it. And that adds a different dimension to this whole thing.
Tying it back to your previous question, because I was dealing with a group of people within the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary organizations that are so demonized both within Iran and outside of it, I wanted to tell the story through particular individuals that the reader would be following throughout the book because otherwise they remain caricatures. Because my research took so long I met so many different people and each chapter could have been about the aggregate of those people, but I felt the characters were coming across as people that the reader could still project a lot of biases onto. I knew that if I could bring some of these characters to life in all of their 3D complexities, even if I disagree with so much of what they said, at least in a way the reader can come to understand why they make the decisions that they do, even if you don't like it or agree with it.
I wanted to ask about one of the music videos you mentioned, We Are Standing Until the Last Drops of Blood. First, it took me a while just to find it online—I mean, I'm searching in English from an American ISP, and looking for anything online is done through a veil of politics and economics. Where are music videos like this posted and what was the general response to it?
It was interesting because they released it both on the messaging apps that are popular in Iran, like Telegram and WhatsApp, and they released it how they would release a film. There was a release party. They hosted a bunch of debates about it on state television. And they advertised for it on regime media itself. That was really interesting because they also put quite a bit of money into the advertising campaigns around it.
One of the things I didn't get to in the book itself was about reception in a direct way. Part of the reason is that it's really difficult to study reception in any sort of authoritative way. For me what was intriguing was not so much just the reception to each one of these music videos and films but how, as an aggregate, all of these different products were creating a new narrative about the Islamic Republic. So the music video with the rapper that I write about in the same chapter had a lot more engagement and views than the other one did, but all of them are part of this wider narrative that regime media producers are creating.
You mentioned how Iran isn't the only country having to think about state communications, for lack of a better term, right now. What perspectives did this research give you for looking at 21st-century state media production?
In the conclusion I brought up an internet channel where activists did not realize it was a regime-produced media channel, and the internet allows you to do that a lot easier, to "fake" the origin of media content in the digital world, than if you had to put something on television for example. We hear complaints from Brazil to Sri Lanka, from the United States to the United Kingdom, about fake news or fake messages making themselves sort of viral in different communities that cause very real political situations. That is something that we're all going to have to grapple with going forward.
It's very easy for not only states but also political and social groups to partake in these practices. Misinformation has a very long history, so none of this is new. What is new is that smartphones are fairly cheap today and are accessible pretty much in most locations around the world. So, the circulation of images, videos, entertainment, news (fake or not) is simply the fastest it's ever been in our history. That's causing new challenges.
On the flip side, states have to figure out how to vie for citizens' attention in a media sphere where so many other things are vying for their attention. How does the state get certain ideas across about what it stands for or what its politics are when it's also competing for attention from entertainment sites and other forms of media? Remember, states are always in the process of formation—it doesn't matter how long they've been around. There's a larger project to be done here about how states now command attention from their citizens and that's something I've started working on with some colleagues. And I think that that's something that we know we don't have the answer to because we're still very much in the throes of this, and even as researchers we're trying to figure out exactly what's happening today.
You mentioned in the book that you experienced difficulty doing this research both in Iran and the U.S. Is that an ongoing difficulty for you as a scholar?
When the Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization a few months ago, my first thought was, Wow, if I were doing this research now I would be barred from doing it and possibly opening myself up to legal action from the U.S. government.
Working on Iran in general in the U.S. is always going to be difficult as long as the two nations are at such odds. Anytime there are sanctioned regimes as robust as there were during the Obama administration or now during the Trump administration it makes any sort of social scientific work that's based on fieldwork nearly impossible. And even if it's possible, you as a researcher have to push so hard and jump through so many hoops—I don't know if I would be willing to do what I had to do as far as getting lawyers and making the case that it was my First Amendment right to conduct this research back in 2012 and 2013 today, because it took so much convincing and pushing on my end. I had the luxury of time at that time because I was a graduate student.
In that sense, I think this is one reason so much of our understanding and politics and policies toward Iran have been misguided. Our policies are making it so that we know less about the country rather than more. And so any of the types of battles I had to do in order to go into the country to do research I think probably pale in comparison to what I would have to do today to do the same work. And that's not even touching on the issue of researchers who have been imprisoned in Iran. These are issues that I've been writing more on lately and that will be published in academic journals in 2020.
If you don't mind me asking, where did doing this work take you? What are you working on now?
I'm working on a new project called America Held Hostage. Nightline on ABC News that Ted Koppel used to headline was the precursor to our 24-hour news cycle, and that came about through coverage of the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979. So I'm looking at how coverage of the hostage crisis transformed American news culture and how it also created the framework for how we understand Iran and the Middle East more broadly today.