See no evil

What Iran's recent hostility to the BBC says about the state of the regime

The soft drink can looked as if it should contain Coke. It had the familiar red background and white script. But this was in Esfahan, the most elegant and beautiful city in Iran, but still part of a country where the ruling clerics periodically tie themselves in knots about Coca-Cola’s supposed connections to the governments of Israel and America. So instead of Coke, we were drinking Mecca-Cola, whose founder, a French Muslim entrepreneur named Tawfiq Mathlouthi, launched the brand with the claim that it would contribute to the “fight against American imperialism and the fascism of the Zionist entity.” A small message on the can asks that drinkers avoid mixing the drink with alcohol.

My host—I’ll call him Farouk—was a white-haired septuagenarian with a sad and gentle face. He had previously been jailed because of his secular and leftist beliefs and had written several books of poetry and philosophy, all of which sat unpublished on his apartment shelves. Farouk poured some Mecca-Cola into my glass and then added the contents of a bottle of strong alcohol that had been smuggled into Iran from Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan. He turned on his illegal satellite television and flipped through the channels until he found one showing pornography. He sighed, sank into his chair, and raised a glass to his lips.

I don’t think Farouk cared one way or the other about the mechanically coupling bodies on screen. I think he simply wanted to demonstrate his total disdain for the Muslim theocracy that had been running his country for the last three decades, and getting drunk while watching porn was a neat and tidy way of accomplishing this.

“I am 71 years old,” Farouk said. “And all my life I have been lucky to continue learning as if I were a young man. If you don’t learn, if you don’t continue to learn, you are frozen. The mullahs in Iran are frozen. They are trapped 1,400 years ago.”

This drinking session took place more than four years ago, the last time I was in Iran. But I was reminded of Farouk and his illegal satellite television this week because BBC World Service has launched a Farsi language television channel aimed at viewers in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Iranian officials have promptly called the channel a “security threat” and have vowed to take the “necessary measures.” They have already refused the BBC permission to do any production work for the new TV channel on Iranian soil and have warned its citizens to have nothing to do with it. It’s unlikely these measures will have much effect. BBC World Service already broadcasts in Farsi and has a weekly audience of 10 million listeners. Millions of Iranians have satellite dishes.

But the reaction of the Iranian government reveals just how little faith it has in its own popular legitimacy. I worked for BBC World Service when I was living in England a few years back. Its headquarters, in a place called Bush House a short walk from Trafalgar Square, is a wonderful mix of British and world cultures. Bush House is an old and stately building fronted by pillars with the words “Dedicated to the friendship of English-speaking peoples” engraved above them. The tea trolley makes its regular rounds, and most everyone can speak intelligently about cricket. Yet the BBC World Service is also the most multi-ethnic and multilingual news organization I’ve ever worked for. A typical shift in the newsroom might find a young Afghan man on leave from the BBC’s Kabul bureau on your left, and a much older Hungarian who fled communism decades ago and never left London on your right. I never worked on a story about a country where the BBC didn’t have good contacts on the ground. And this was just the English language service. BBC World broadcasts in several dozen languages. Their goal, simple and unabashed, is to be the best—the most trusted and comprehensive—news organization in the world. Most days I think they pull it off, which is why I’ve met people all over the world—from tribesman with henna-died beards on the Afghan-Pakistan border, to taxi drivers in Syria—who tune in.

Iran’s theocracy has proved itself to be remarkably resilient. I have wrongly predicted its imminent demise before and won’t repeat the same mistake here. Nevertheless, when a government doesn’t trust its own people to watch what they want, especially when what they want to watch is the BBC, the rot is well set in.