For those wishing to glean meaningful information about the role of communications prior to and during Iran's tumultuous revolution, this is an outstanding book. The authors, who lived and participated in that revolution, are eminently qualified. At present, Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi is director of the Center for Mass Communications Research at the University of Leichester; her husband, Ali Mohammadi, is in international and cultural studies at Nottingham Trent University. Their personal experiences complement each other in this exceedingly thorough document.
This is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking books on media I have ever read. I believe the text should be mandatory reading for policy makers and communication specialists, especially those preoccupied and/or involved with the Middle East. By studying Small Media, scholars, diplomats, politicians, policy makers and others might learn how best to prevent foreign-policy mistakes in the future.
There is no question that the United States failed to predict or understand the making of the Iranian Revolution. In 1977, an ebullient Jimmy Carter declared, "Because of the greatness of the shah, Iran is an island of stability in the Middle East." Two years later, Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said: "Khomeini will be somewhat of a saint when we get over the panic."
The Mohammadis argue that misunderstanding resulted, in part, from the failure to take into account the role played by small media in "spreading the word of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini." Had Carter's advisers recognized that "small media can make revolution," more accurate statements and realistic policies might have been advanced. The circulation of audio cassettes and recorders, posters, photocopied leaflets and international telephone connections by the Iranian religious leaders played a significant role in helping to transform passive people into active anti-American militants.
For example, a considerable volume of photocopied and mimeographed materials "were distributed from hand to hand, further reproduced and passed on. They would be found in university classrooms in the morning. They were placed on car windshields. They were read aloud in mosques, tea houses and other places. They were pasted on walls and trees, only to be tom down by SAVAK and the military" (p. 122).
Powerful rumor networks, circulating tales about "the importation of Israeli troops to do the shah's dirty work" (p. 132), played an important part in tarnishing the shah's image. Even the BBC played a role. Khomeini's supporters were adept at "feeding information to the BBC correspondent," resulting in reporting that probably supported the movement (p. 126).
To obtain needed background information on how the "Khomeini phenomenon" came about, consider the chapter called "Media and the State and Iranian History" (pp. 43-58). The roots of the 1978 revolution began in the fifties, argue the authors, when resentment toward the West, especially England and the United States, intensified. The West, they explain, maintained control over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, refusing to allow Iran to nationalize its oil industry. Also, in 1953, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq was "overturned by a foreign-sponsored coup." Had the West not intervened, "the Khomeini regime would never have appeared." By the early 1970s, state the Mohammadis, "the anti-British slogans of the 1950s had turned into 'Yankee go home' and later 'America, the Great Satan.'" In essence, the "1978 movement was really a reconstruction of the democratization cut short in 1953.''
In the "Language, Authority and Ideology" chapter (pp. 105-18), the authors explain that in 1978, after Khomeini moved to Paris, the use of small media served to help the Iranian uprising gather momentum. No longer isolated from world media, Khomeini launched an international publicity campaign, agreeing to be interviewed by scores of major European and U.S. journalists. The result? The elderly patriarch manipulated the press, convincing them he was but a modest underdog, a simple, devout sage. He came to represent asceticism, offering a religious alternative to the moral laxity and lavish behavior of the shah. Subsequently, many Iranians came to perceive Khomeini as a credible leader, "the interlocutor between God" and themselves (p. 117).
As to the role of the shah's big media, by 1975-76 government-controlled radio covered the country; 70 percent of the population had television reception. Although the urban elite may have embraced Western programming, state-run media systems lacked credibility with most Iranians, especially adults, 68 percent of whom were illiterate. "Far from helping to legitimize the shah's unpopular regime," the Mohammadis argue, the Peacock Throne was soon discredited.
Western programs such as Days of Our Lives and Marcus Welby, M.D., undermined any "sense of an authentic, indigenous Iranian identity.'' Thus, people began resenting both the shah and his media, perceiving Hollywood's offerings not as purveyors of modern entertainment, but as "carriers of a threatening alien culture.'' After all, the intent of this cultural TV invasion was not to celebrate Iranian civilization, but to promote "Western popular culture.'' Almost no one disagreed with Khomeini when he preached that "the culture of imperialism" had no place in Iran. A boomerang effect resulted. Khomeini, who consistently blamed the West for the loss of Iran's "religious morality and indigenous identity," garnered more support, the shah, less.
The Mohammadis' inquiries and experiences are especially insightful, reminding readers that few, if anyone, benefited from the revolution. Today, Iran "is burdened with $50 billion in foreign debts, 50 percent unemployment." Also, 100,000 supporters of the resistance were murdered for their democratic beliefs.
The revolution "has in many respects been a tremendous failure,'' write the Mohammadis, "only clearly achieving its central goal of removing the shah from power, and not implementing a regime of democracy and tolerance that many of its participants had dreamed about" (p. 193). For anyone aspiring to understand the "failure" of U.S. policy in oil-rich Iran, and what steps might be taken to prevent failures, I urge you to read, study and learn from this splendid book.