As Iran’s ruling ayatollahs tell it, the main strike force plotting to end Islamic rule in their country is not on the streets of Tehran but on the upper floors of a celebrated Art Deco building in central London.
The propagators of an “all-out war” against the Islamic republic, as Iran’s state-run news agency has called them, are a group of 140 men and women who work at the BBC’s Broadcasting House, a stone’s throw from the shopping mecca of Oxford Street in London. Mainly expatriate Iranians, they staff the BBC’s Persian-language television service, on air for only six months and reaching a daily audience of between 6 million and 8 million Iranians — a powerful fraction of TV watchers in Iran, with its population of 70 million.
The audience estimate, BBC insiders say, came from a leaked document prepared by Iran’s state-run broadcasting service, which warned before the current upheaval of the threat from the new channel.
PTV, as those in the London newsroom call it, is at the heart of a new kind of revolution that has played out in Tehran, where a disputed presidential election two weeks ago sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets claiming ballot fraud in the re-election of the hard-line incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the protests, an archaic political system has been shaken by the use of powerful new weapons: foreign-based satellite television channels like the BBC’s that beam into Iran, social networking tools like Twitter and sites like Facebook that act as running diaries on the upheaval and as forums for coordinating protest, and cell phone videos that have captured the confrontation in Tehran for worldwide audiences, perhaps most important in Iran itself.
“It’s a totally different country now because of the new media,” said Sina Motallebi, who oversees interactive elements of the BBC channel’s coverage in the London newsroom.
Motallebi, more than most, understands the new technologies’ power — and the Iranian government’s determination to suppress them. In 2003, as Iran’s most famous anti-government blogger, he was imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, along with murderers, rapists and other criminals. Many others working at the BBC channel gained their first experience working on opposition newspapers and blogs in Tehran.
The government has singled out several foreign news broadcasters for what it calls biased coverage: CNN, broadcasting in English, as well as the Voice of America and the BBC, which broadcast in Iran in Persian, the country’s national language.
But the BBC’S Persian channel has been cast as the main threat, partly, BBC officials say, because Britain’s colonial past has earned it a special place in Iran’s official demonography. Hamid Reza Moqaddamfar, chief of the state-run Fars news agency, has described the channel’s coverage as “psychological warfare,” and said its mission was “spreading lies and rumors and distorting facts.”
A pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper, Vatan Emrouz, even claimed that Jon Leyne, the BBC’s Tehran correspondent, expelled from Iran on June 21, paid “a thug” to kill Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who became a martyr to the protesters after she was shot dead during the demonstrations.
State-run television has interviewed protesters who said the Persian channel influenced them to take to the streets. One woman said the channel inspired her and her son to go out armed with hand grenades. Another woman said the channel’s report that the riot police had attacked protesters prompted her to go to the streets, where she said she had found that it was the protesters, not the police, who were “beating up people.”