Narges Bajoghli, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Narges Bajoghli (NB): In 2007, a former founder of Ansar-e Hizballah in Iran and the leading figure in the violent suppression of student activists at the University of Tehran, Masoud Dehnamaki, became a film director. His first feature narrative film, The Outcasts, was set during the Iran-Iraq war. War films are the biggest genre of films in Iran, strongly backed by different sectors of the state; in recent years, however, ticket sales for war films had tanked—until The Outcasts, which broke all box office record sales in Iran. With the commercial success of his film, Dehnamaki spoke and wrote a lot about the need to train a new generation of pro-regime paramilitary filmmakers in how to make more entertaining films with “the right message.” He was planning on setting up film workshops to teach this new generation.
I had just left Iran after a few years of living, studying, and working there. Until that point, I had focused on women’s and student movements for some time and I thought I would continue down that path, until I read some pieces by Laura Nader, Lila Abu-Lughod, and others about the need to study power; it really shifted my focus. They wrote about how anthropologists study marginalized communities or activist communities that they feel some form of solidarity with, and how, although we end up with a more nuanced understanding of those communities, our knowledge about the power that they are up against remains two-dimensional. We cannot effectively fight against oppressive power structures and ideas if we do not understand power and those who occupy positions of power beyond caricatures.
This resonated deeply with me. Much of the scholarly literature on the Islamic Republic’s political structure just did not capture the complex realities on the ground. With Dehnamaki’s new film and plans on training more Basij filmmakers, I knew I had to shift my focus. I wanted to understand how the state utilized media to communicate its founding ideology to new generations. This, of course, is not an issue unique to Iran or the Islamic Republic. In the Iranian case, however, much of the funding and resources for the state’s media production now come from the Revolutionary Guard, thus my interest in studying them, specifically, as cultural producers.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NB: At its core, the book engages with questions of media, militaries, and revolutionary states. Specifically, it is placed within three areas of scholarships: the anthropology of media, anthropology of the state, and post-revolutionary Iran.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NB: I consciously wrote this book to not just be for an academic audience. Iran remains deeply misunderstood, both within academia and beyond, and it has led to four decades of destructive policies. My aim for this book is for it to be read in the social sciences, Middle East studies, and media studies, and by students looking to understand Iran, power, and the complex ways media production unfold. But I also want this book to be read by intelligent and curious readers who want to understand Iranian politics in all of its complexities. I am really thankful for my editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, and for mentor and colleague, Sherine Hamdy, who encouraged me to push through academic jargon and write Iran Reframed in an intelligent, yet accessible way.
The title of the book refers not only to the ways that the Islamic Republic is reframing its message for younger audiences, but also to what we, as scholars and analysts, learn about Iran when we shift our frame of analysis to the point of view of those who are supporters of the Islamic Republic. If scholarly and public culture analysis thus far has failed to understand the supporters of the Islamic Republic in all of their complexities, what can be gained if we take a different approach to contemporary power in Iran, one that insists, as anthropology demands, on an actual curiosity about the positions and worldviews of the supporters of the Islamic Republic, on their terms?
The result is a book that looks deeply at issues of socio-economic class, social and cultural capital, belonging, and generational change. These are issues often overlooked when the predominant lens in studies on post-revolutionary Iran is a preoccupation with Islam at the expense of other social phenomena. One of my main findings is that contestation in the Islamic Republic is not just between “the regime and the people,” or “the old generation versus the youth.” Instead, contestation in Iran today involves conflicts over the very boundary of what is and is not part of the regime; what is and is not counted as part of the “correct” revolutionary narrative; and what should and should not count as political or cultural. The struggles over these boundaries and how they should be policed comes into focus once the study of Iran is reframed.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NB: I am currently working on two projects. The first is America Held Hostage, which will be a documentary film as well as an academic book. It is not a story of the hostage crisis itself, but rather, a story of how news came to dominate our every-waking moment in the United States. America Held Hostage tells the story of how ABC News created the paradigm for "news-as-entertainment" that was the precursor to our twenty-four-hour cable cycle. In an attempt to beat its competitors, ABC News executives decided in 1979 that they needed a worthy news story to hook Americans in on a nightly basis. When Iranian revolutionary students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking hostages, they had just the story “with legs” they were waiting for. Ted Koppel's Nightline, the first nightly news magazine show, was born, setting the stage for what would become America's framework for reporting on Iran and the Middle East. "Iran has become more than simply a crisis. It is an obsession," Koppel said in one broadcast.
The book will take a deeper dive into the way that covering the hostage crisis and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war redefined American news and also began a process of racializing Iran/Islam/Muslims in such a way as to make room for what policy makers and media personalities at the time referred to as “the new cold war.”
The other project, The Stench of War, is a book project that looks at the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). I have been working on the issue of chemical warfare use in the Middle East since 2005. I directed The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical war in Iran, as well as oral history projects on survivors of chemical weapons (archived at the Tehran Peace Museum). The academic book project that is under way arises out of this work, and will add to it archival research on chemical weapons manufacturing, more ethnographic work in Iraqi Kurdistan, and media analysis of coverage of the events.
J: How did you conduct the research for your book?
NB: Conducting research for Iran Reframed took a long time, for two reasons. Firstly, I did not want to just conduct interviews, but I was looking to do long-term participant-observation in regime media studios and with pro-regime media makers. I knew that interviews with state elites would render only formulaic responses, and I wanted to go deeper than that. That required building relationships of trust over time, which leads to my second reason: building that kind of rapport where I could do long-term ethnographic research was particularly difficult in this project because I was trying to gain access into circles in which I had no personal connections, and circles that were formally opposed to people like me—i.e., an Iranian American with family who had fought for the revolution but were anti-Islamic Republic and eventually forced into exile. Beyond that, as a woman, I was also trying to gain access to circles that were predominantly populated by men. Although regime media centers do employ women, they do not work in film production, but rather conduct oral histories and write books.
In preparation for conducting this fieldwork, I also trained as a documentary filmmaker at NYU in addition to my theoretical and methodological training as an anthropologist. Studying media production required that I also know how to produce films and media in practice. And beyond that, by being trained in production, I could volunteer on film sets in Iran, sit in on production meetings with filmmakers, and thus make participant observation a more fluid process in spaces I otherwise stood out in like a sore thumb.
My previous work with survivors of chemical warfare in Iran opened up a lot of doors for me for this project. The doctors and survivors (mainly veterans of the war) I had worked with on that issue over a period of four years made introductions to their friends in regime media circles and vouched for me. Without those personal connections, this project would not have been possible. But, in a twist that I have now come to expect as the norm, the US government made me jump through more hoops to conduct this research than I ever had to in Iran. Because of the extensive sanctions regime against Iran and the fact that I was (at the time) conducting research with “specially designated individuals”—today, the Revolutionary Guard and its institutions have all been formally designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the US government—I had to first convince my university’s lawyers that I was legally allowed to conduct this research (the US Treasury Department keeps rules about researchers working in sanctioned countries vague, leading to university administrators pressuring scholars not to pursue the research for fear of reprisal from the US government). Eventually, after months of back and forth, my university spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring an outside firm to file an OFAC license for me to be able to do the research. This reality of being a researcher seen as a national security threat in both Iran and the United States is something I have written about (forthcoming in Journal of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East).
Excerpt from the book
From the introduction
“This youngest generation in our country doesn’t understand our revolutionary language anymore,” Reza Hosseini told his colleagues. “We’re wasting our time with the media we make.”
At 45, Mr. Hosseini had retired from active duty in Iran’s preeminent military organization, the Revolutionary Guard, and now worked as a writer, director, and producer of pro-regime content. In front of him sat seven high-level officials of the Revolutionary Guard who oversee media production in the country. They met on a regular basis in a plain conference room of a regime publishing house in central Tehran. A long oval table was surrounded with office chairs covered in their original protective plastic, which had blackened from use over the years. Although the room was tucked away from the pollution and heavy traffic outside, the incessant honking of horns was still audible. A powerful air purifier made little difference, because the sharp smell of exhaust seeped into the room. The tea service on the table was growing cold, and sweets, like the tea, were left untouched. The men--still in their black and grey winter coats despite the blast of heat from the heater--sat silently, each staring off into space.
It had been just over three years since the 2009 Green Movement uprising--the biggest mass demonstrations in Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Since 2009, the Islamic Republic’s cultural producers had held numerous meetings in which they contemplated what had inspired so many young Iranians to come out onto the streets and protest the government. The demonstrators decried perceived voter fraud during the presidential elections in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the victor just hours after the polls had closed.2Protestors believed that Ahmadinejad’s Interior Ministry, with possible tacit support from the Supreme Leader’s Office, had committed voter fraud to ensure that the highly popular reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would not win. What began with “Where is my vote?” turned into shouts of “Down with the dictator!” The slogans of the 2009 protests were eerily similar to--indeed many were facsimiles of--the slogans the men in the Revolutionary Guard remember shouting as young men against the Shah in 1979. How could young people on the streets in 2009 be mimicking their revolutionary slogans, but using them this time against their own revolution?
Mr. Hosseini broke the silence, as usual. “These kids don’t care about the revolutionary stories we’ve told them the past thirty years, and it’s our own fault. We can’t blame them. We haven’t properly communicated our stories to them. We need to bring them back to our side by telling better stories.” Having grown up in Abadan, home to the largest oil refinery in the Middle East before the revolution, Mr. Hosseini prided himself on having had an upbringing surrounded by Americans, Brits, and Iranians from all walks of life. He didn’t classify people into “us” (khodi) and “them” (gheyr-e khodi), like many of his colleagues did when describing different social factions in Iran. Mr. Hosseini made it a point to have close friendships with those who disagreed with him and the system he supported.
In these meetings, Mr. Hosseini was usually quick to argue that the Islamic Republic should be more flexible with young Iranians. “We keep pushing them away by making their lifestyle choices suspect and illegal. So what if they like to have spiked hair that reaches the sky and to wear skinny jeans? That doesn’t matter, but we’ve turned these things into political issues.”
Mr. Hosseini is typical of the first generation of Revolutionary Guard members. Having volunteered as a young man to fight in the war with Iraq that followed the revolution, he honed his skills on the battlefields of the twentieth century’s longest conventional war. There, he and his fellow soldiers demonstrated their willingness to defend their country and their revolution to death. Today, he and some of his comrades from the war constitute the top echelons of the Revolutionary Guard.
“The protestors are not to blame,” he said, again fixing his look to the corner of the room, his arms crossed on his chest, leaning back on his chair. His own wife and children had joined the protestors in 2009. After a silence, he continued, “We’re the ones that need to adapt to the realities of our country.”
Mohammad Ahmadi, a prominent film producer who directed one of the most notable pro-regime film collectives in the country, nodded in agreement and chimed in, “I talk about this all the time with my filmmakers. We’ve lost the youth in our country. We need to face this reality.”
“But we can’t give in to their demands! What do we become then, if we do that?” interjected Asghar Haghighi, a fifty-year-old general in the Revolutionary Guard. “We have to teach them the right way. Just because they demand something doesn’t mean we have to give in to them. Do you do that when you discipline your own kids? No! So we shouldn’t do that with the country’s youth either!”
“Look, Asghar,” Mr. Ahmadi said, turning his attention to his senior colleague, “if we don’t become more flexible, we lose the entire system. The future is theirs because of their sheer numbers. They outnumber us. And not only that, if we don’t become more flexible, we could turn into Syria.”
“It’s true,” Mr. Hosseini interjected, suddenly becoming animated and sitting upright in his chair. “Our system has problems; which system doesn’t? But we can’t have our young people going into the arms of any opposition just because they dislike us. That’s exactly what happened in Syria and look at the civil war that’s begun there.”
Later that day, Mr. Hosseini gave me a ride back from the meeting. Furrowing his brow, he said, “Maybe we were right in suppressing the Green Movement. If we hadn’t, maybe we would’ve had the same situation here as in Syria.” It was hard for him to voice those words. He and his close friends in the Revolutionary Guard had voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate. And more than that, they despised the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
His fear of Iran “turning into Syria” revealed a difficult truth that all my interlocutors in the Revolutionary Guard eventually voiced to me as the Syrian civil war turned bloodier and more complex. Syria became a metaphor for what Iran’s military elite sought to avoid at all costs. Yet they also viewed Syria as the stage on which the wider regional and global wars for influence and power played out, and in which they were heavily involved.
For Mr. Hosseini and his colleagues, the international meddling in the Syrian war also resembled the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Though long forgotten in most parts of the world, the Iran-Iraq War continues to reverberate in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran just over a year after the success of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The bloody war, characterized by trench warfare and chemical weapons, dragged on for eight years. Though this was ostensibly a war between two nation states, most Arab countries supported Iraq, and regional and international powers played the two countries against one another. As Morteza Sarhangi, a prominent regime journalist and writer, said to me, voicing the official stance of the Iranian state, “This war was actually World War III. Over two dozen countries were involved in the war. Western powers wanted to see our two countries destroy each other so they could have influence in the Middle East and over our oil and resources.”
For Iran’s young soldiers, mostly volunteers in the pro-regime Basij paramilitary militia and the Revolutionary Guard, the war was not only their coming-of-age story but also the prism through which they viewed international relations. Mr. Hosseini and his colleagues understood all too well what it meant to be pawns in larger geopolitical power plays.
The next month, at a meeting with the same men, Mr. Hosseini said to his colleagues, “We can’t have young people go into the arms of the opposition just because they want change. They need to know that we’re not their enemy. But the Green Movement and our response in 2009 made them feel we’re against them.”
“Exactly!” Mr. Ahmadi jumped in excitedly. “We’ve distanced ourselves from young people and that’s the real danger. God forbid one day Daesh (ISIS) or another group attacks Iran. Will our young people rise up and defend the country the same way our generation did with Iraq? If we keep distancing ourselves in this way, the answer will be no.”
Alireza Shirazi, an executive in the state-run television network and a former officer of the Revolutionary Guard, agreed with Mr. Hosseini and Mr. Ahmadi, “We need to make sure young people don’t feel dismissed by us. That’s why managing our media correctly is so important.” He leaned in with his elbows on the glass table and continued, “You all know our hands are tied at state television. We can’t produce different media because of our restrictions. So it’s up to the rest of you to create media that will draw young people closer.”
“The first step is to stop producing the propaganda of the past three decades,” Mr. Hosseini said. “We need to communicate in a language young people will understand.”
This article is part of the new Jadaliyya Iran Page launch. To inaugurate the Iran Page, its co-editors are pleased to present the following articles, interviews, and resources:
"Jadaliyya Launches New Iran Page" by Iran Page Editors
"Covering Race and Rebellion" by Naveed Mansoori
"The Systemic Problem of 'Iran Expertise' in Washington" by Negar Razavi
Extended Iran Media Roundup
New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) Interviews
Houri Berberian, Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds
Nile Green, The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca
Narges Bajoghli, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran
Golbarg Rekabtalaei, Iranian Cosmopolitanism: A Cinematic History
Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran
Engaging Books Series: Cambridge University Press Selections on Cosmopolitanism and Political Reform in Iran
Jadaliyya Talks: Arash Davari and Sina Rahmani on "Divorce, Iran-America Style"
"Essential Readings: Post-Revolutionary Iran" by Arang Keshavarzian