This was my senior thesis for my government major, examining what role American popular culture plays on Iranian perceptions of the United States.
The United States is the central player on the international stage, and while it exports less and less industry, more and more American culture is being shipped overseas. It has become the world’s dominant hegemon, in nearly all aspects, and it exerts political, military, economic, and cultural power around the globe. These various facets of power do not operate in isolation from each other. As the United States grows increasingly involved in the politics of the Middle East, engaging in multiple wars and strenuous negotiations, globalization is also exporting American culture. American culture, its customs, its products and especially its entertainment, are widespread around the globe, and have mass appeal. As Western popular culture spreads around the world, it plays a role in shaping foreign public perceptions of the United States. Could a country such as Iran, one of the most modernized countries in the Middle East and one of the most anti-American, have aspects of its future relationships with the United States, the so-called “Great Satan,” shaped by the soft power influence of Western popular culture?
Joseph Nye of Harvard University first articulated the concept of “soft power” in 1990, and further explored the topic in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Soft power is essentially the appealing aspects of a country that attract other entities into aiding them through co-optation rather than coercion. Soft power stands as the counterpoint to hard power, a nation’s armies and economic might that pressure others into behaving in a way that favors them.
Soft power is a broad term, and encompasses most aspects of a country that create its “image” on an international level. Soft power can include a country’s scientific and technological advances, moral beliefs and ideals, and institutions. Exchange students are a crucial means by which new generations learn about the cultures, customs and appeals of the United States and then take these (hopefully) positive feelings back with them to their home countries. A major form of soft power is acts of public diplomacy, concerted efforts to win hearts and minds of foreign citizens. Charlotte Beers’ infamous 2001 campaign she undertook as the U.S. undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under President Bush is one such example. In this case, Beers’ effort to “sell Uncle Sam like Uncle Ben’s” by broadcasting images of happy American Muslims failed miserably. Clearly, soft power, like all power can cut both ways, and the key to its use is finding aspects that will be well received by a foreign public.
Soft power can be further divided into two rough categories; aspects of culture and image making that are intentionally geared towards winning hearts and minds, like acts of public diplomacy; and those aspects of culture that are not intended to improve a country’s image, or even to be for international audiences. Those who study soft power tend to focus more on active public diplomacy, leaving somewhat of a gap in the research on popular culture, which acts in a way that I will call passive culture.
Hollywood does not make movies with the intent of making new allies abroad and promoting the American way, but to entertain and profit off of a primarily Western audience. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, this popular culture reaches foreign shores, and it becomes an aspect of the image foreign audiences create of the United States. Movies, television and “products like Coca-Cola are far more effectively branded around the globe than the United States itself.” Their presence in foreign countries unintentionally speaks volumes about the country they hail from.
When discussing popular culture it becomes necessary at some point to define it. Popular culture is a more narrow aspect of culture, which can include mannerisms and traditions. While it is difficult to draw a hard line on what is and what is not popular culture, for the purposes of this essay we can assume it is mass produced, mass consumed and generally made for profit. Movies, television programs, music, games, and most forms of entertainment fall under this categorization. Iconic corporations such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola have made themselves a part of global pop culture for years. Popular culture stands apart from public diplomacy, and is different, yet not entirely unrelated, from “high culture.” Popular culture is not without its merits despite being mass produced and for profit, as “an item does not lose its value simply because it [is] mass produced; instead, the people who use it [derive] meaning and value from it.” High culture, cultural customs and popular culture are all intertwined in some fashion, and popular culture can be an important and revealing insight into a people. When talking in terms of soft power, a positive insight is exactly the idea.
It is difficult to pinpoint the full role of American popular culture in affecting international relations. Certainly, it is harder to observe a direct cause and effect between Elvis and action than diplomacy and war. While the results may be less clear-cut, there is a significant case to be made for the power of popular culture. Consider the culture war that accompanied the Cold War. In addition to the arms race and wars-by-proxy like Vietnam that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in, they also were trying to make themselves more appealing by increasing their soft power. The space race and the 1959 kitchen debate between Nixon and Khrushchev were two such endeavors in attempting to make capitalism and democracy more appealing than communism, and vice versa.
Popular culture played a significant role in this exchange as well. Soviet leaders were fearful of a supposed corrupting influence of Western popular culture. Such popular culture promoted ideals of individualism, consumerism and the pursuit of a personal happiness, ideals that went against the regimented sublimated individual communist way of life. Western-style entertainment was generally banned, but the taboo only increased the illicit appeal, a reoccurring trend. Western governments capitalized on this by broadcasting American entertainment media into the Soviet bloc through Radio Free Europe and similar projects. American popular culture was making the American way of life seem more appealing to the average Soviet, and the government’s attempts to deny them access to western media served only to undermine it. As Globalization and American Popular Culture author Lane Crothers noted, “a government afraid of popular American television programs like Ozzie and Harriet or The A-Team seems to be a remarkably weak government that, in time, is likely to fail for a variety of reasons.” Popular culture didn’t tear down the Berlin Wall on its own, but it certainly helped create an atmosphere that contributed to its downfall.
Anne L. Foster gives another compelling example for the potential of popular culture in shaping foreign perceptions of America in her book Projections of Power, which chronicles the United States’ presence in European colonies in Southeast Asia in the 1920’s and 30’s. Going to the movies, like those starring Charlie Chaplin, became increasingly common pastime for Vietnamese and Filipino citizens. American products and entertainment became very popular, and engendered positive feelings toward the United States. Part of this came from “‘the routine of freedom’ in American life which the movies presented as ordinary.” People living under colonial rule liked the image that American movies and commerce sold, a fact, which irritated the European imperials.
Given that popular culture has a history of influencing the course of international politics and events, it stands to reason that it must be having some sort of impact in the Middle East. The United States has a heavy presence in the region, and is generally very unpopular. Political decisions play a large part in this. Indeed, as much as popular culture has a subtle, transformative power, it is hard to imagine a TV show counteracting the United States’ stance on the Israel -Palestine issue. Similarly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not winning the United States any favor. Popular culture seems unlike to be the solution to these problems; massive policy changes are required, but they are going to be part of the solution. Popular culture is part of soft power, and as Nye asserts “smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both.” Popular culture is a powerful and important tool in foreign relations, but a somewhat unreliable and unwieldy one. Indeed, American popular culture is perhaps nowhere more divisive than in the Muslim world and the Middle East.
Part of this is a pushback against American cultural imperialism and globalization, a struggle Benjamin Barber refers to as “jihad vs. McWorld.” (Barber uses the term “jihad” to stand in for any struggle against American globalization, not just Islamic fundamentalism, though the more traditional definitions certainly applies in this instance.) American culture is often met with resistance from the ruling classes and more conservative citizens in part because “its dynamism makes it naturally and endlessly imperialistic – a behemoth that imposes its culture (often seen as debased), its democracy (often seen as flawed), and its conception of individual human rights (often seen as a threat to more communitarian and more socially concerned approaches) on other societies.”
This resentment of American culture is especially pertinent in the Middle East, surely in no small part due to the widespread unpopularity of the United State’s political action. This, combined with a longstanding conflict and unease between Islam and the Christian West innately makes it so American culture faces an uphill battle for acceptance. According to the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project, American movies and Television are viewed as attractive by upwards of 60% of respondents in European and African countries, and by over 70% of respondents from North and South American countries. In the seven countries polled with majority Muslim populations, fewer than 40% found the pop-culture dimension of America attractive.
Nevertheless there is still a substantial demand for western media and popular culture. International media companies seek out untapped markets, and new technology like satellite television allows for Nickelodeon to be broadcast in Saudi Arabia. In countries with less agreeable relations with the United States and who are more opposed to allowing Western entertainment corporations into their lands, Western popular culture still finds its way in through unofficial or illegal channels. In countries with stricter governments, there are bans against the import or possession of Western popular culture. That these bans have to be so enforced indicates the presence of a substantial demand for American popular culture, and the conflict between those fighting “Western intoxication,” and those working around bans to seek it out. Much like the Soviet Union was shown to be weak due to its insistence at blacking out Western culture, could the same be happening in Middle Eastern countries?
In examining the role of American popular culture in the Middle East several key questions are raised. How much American popular culture is reaching the Middle East, and how is it being interpreted and received by both the masses and the government? In attempting to answer this question, this paper will focus primarily on Iran, a highly modernized nation with a large and active youth population and very strained and delicate relations with the United States. All this builds towards the ultimate question of what tangible effect does imported Western popular culture have on present, recent past and likely future Middle Eastern relations and foreign policy? Will a youthful generation raised on fond memories of American popular culture be more inclined to act in ways that will benefit the United States, or is popular culture unable to overcome the substantial culture clash and oppressive government?
Before discussing the extent of Western popular culture in Iran, a brief history is in order, as the reception of American popular culture is very much tied to America’s reception with Iran. Iran-United States relations were superficially good after the 1953 CIA-backed coup put Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in power, though the seeds of future resentment were firmly planted. The Shah was supportive of Western policies, customs and even culture. A small, but telling detail of his cultural preferences can be seen in his Western-style official dress. Under his rule, “despite tight controls on most politically related speech, the entertainment industry flourished in Iran. Packed cinemas featured the latest Hollywood productions and film-farsis.” Western culture wasn’t prohibited; it was encouraged as a welcome aspect of Western-style modernization. Not everyone was pleased with the spread of Western entertainment, and the values it carried with it, and the eschewing of Islamic morals and Iranian tradition was one of many causes that helped sow the seeds of revolution.
In 1979 the Islamic Revolution saw the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and with it, the ousting of many Western influences and culture. The Revolution was a result of a large number of factors, as the Shah’s rule was extravagant, brutal, and poorly managed. Of particular interest here is the Shah’s close ties with the United States, whose culture an Under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Western influences and culture were prohibited. This ban was an effort to protect Iran’s Shi’a Muslim identity and culture which many saw as having been pushed aside in favor of the Shah’s Western-inspired modernization. Khomeini was a deeply conservative figure, whose sweeping bans against anything remotely Western were an attempt to cure the “Gharbzadegi,” meaning “West-struck-ness” or “Westoxification” that was affecting Iran like a plague.
After Khomeini’s death, prohibitions on Western culture eased somewhat, especially under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Elected in 1997, Khatami was a reform minded moderate who openly rejected Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis in favor of what Khatami called a dialogue of civilizations. Although he still held some very serious reservations, Khatami acknowledged that there were positives to Western culture and civilization. Bans on Western pop culture were on the whole, far less strongly enforced than they had been in the past. The election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 however, saw a renewal of enforcement of bans on Western popular culture and a slew of new bans that made access to Western content, if not harder to get, then at least certainly more a more punishable offence.
The history of the existence of Western popular culture in Iran has been an uneasy one. The government’s prohibitions against it are currently renewing, and getting more and more strict. At the same time, advances in technology are making it easier to access, and there seems to be an increasing demand for Western entertainment culture despite the official attempts to eradicate it from Iranian life. The interplay between these two opposing forces; the Regimes’ increasing censorship and the demand for Western popular culture is a fascinating relationship, and one that may have broader consequences as time goes on.
One of the most visible types of western culture is making its way into Iran, and is widely accepted by Iranians, is television. Though normal broadcasting in Iran is a state-controlled media, where there is no Western entertainment content, a black market of VHS’s, DVD’s and more recently satellite television, are giving the Iranian people access to a Western media and a much broader scope of entertainment. Satellite television came to Iran in the mid 1990’s and soon the rapidly increasing number of Iranians whose homes had illicit dishes had access to American channels. Soon after a number of small independent Farsi language stations stationed mainly in Los Angels arose, followed by more official stations like BBC Persia. While there was some entertainment content on these channels, they were primarily news. It was not until fairly recently that channels devoted solely to Western (or at least Western-style,) entertainment reached Iran.
FARSI1 is perhaps the notable source of Western popular culture in Iran. The satellite television channel was launched in 2009 as part of a joint venture between the Afghan MOBY Group and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Based in Dubai, the channel broadcasts foreign-made entertainment shows dubbed into Farsi. To avoid any additional conflict there are no news programs on FARSI1, and much of the more explicit aspects of shows are edited out, though in comparison to state run media it is still very raunchy. FARSI1 programming includes American comedies like How I Met Your Mother and Malcolm in the Middle, and dramas like 24. The biggest draw of the channel according to several Iranians, are the soap operas, many of are from Latin America or South Korea. Second Chance, a soap originally made by Telemundo, has achieved such widespread popularity that a hairstyle named after one of its characters, “the Isabelle,” has become popular among Iranian women.
Western television is especially alluring to Iranian audiences in part because of the low quality of programs produced by the state-controlled Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB.) Since the Revolution, state run television has always been heavily censored. News programs were essentially propaganda, though the censorship even extended to sports news. There was little imported content coming mainly from Japan, though this was too was censored to nearly to the point of incoherency. Tellingly, in the years just following the 1979 Revolution, the man in charge of monitoring censorship of Iran’s television airwaves was blind. Though Iranian broadcasting has somewhat had to change with the times, it is still highly censored and very limited in scope. Subject to a very strict set of guidelines that ensures that no broadcast violates Islamic or political sensibilities, IRIB programming fails to entertain the majority of Iranians. Film director Azizollah Hamidnejad explained the sentiment “due to limitations imposed on producers we are always left with productions that are hackneyed in form and content and fail to satisfy searching souls.” A significant amount of IRIB programming is rebroadcasts of speeches by the late Ayatollah Khomeini and other religious figures, called “the man on the balcony” by Iranian skeptics. 207) Such repetitive and lifeless content cannot hope to compete with a fresh flow of Western entertainment, and it is little wonder that the Ayatollah Mohammad Emani-Kashani claims, “the satellite is exactly against the honorable prophet.”
There are even those who see a connection between FARSI1 and the rising number of Christian converts among Iranians. Since there is little Western programming that is mainly Islamic in focus, the foreign shows that these stations rebroadcast generally depict settings where Christianity is the norm. On many of these shows religion is not a major theme, but can nonetheless be read as an implicit endorsement. Some, like the Telemundo produced soap opera El-Clon directly address the issue. El-Clon depicts Christian women living in freedom and happiness compared to the repressed women married to Muslim husbands. Even so, El-Clon’s themes are not part of an active agenda to convert Muslim women, as the main plot of the show is a man fighting for a woman’s love against his own clone. Rather, the mere presence of Christianity portrayed in a positive, or even neutral light is a passive example of soft power. “In spite of state pressure, the house church movement [in Iran] has seen spectacular growth,” noted a field worker at a Christian persecution watch group called Open Doors Middle East. “This is not happening just because of dreams and miracles. The majority of people now come to faith through the multimedia, and especially satellite TV”.
The popularity of FARSI1 and Western television deeply upsets the Regime. Maryam Ardabili, the women’s affairs adviser to the governor of Fars province said that There is no doubt that FARSI1 is a tool of the extensive cultural onslaught [of the West] against Iran,” FARSI1 is especially suspect to some Iranians due to claims that Rupert Murdoch is a Zionist, to the point where FARSI1’s website addresses the concern as question number four on it frequently asked questions page. In an attempt to counter the influx of Western television, satellite dishes are forbidden in Iran, but neither the law nor the frequent police raids are much of a deterrent. Dishes are often confiscated and a fine is levied, only for the dishes to be sold back to their owners by corrupt policemen. Some sixty-five percent of Tehran residents have satellite dishes, and the figure is somewhere between thirty-five and forty percent across Iran generally. Confiscated dishes are soon replaced, and “it said that in recent years Iranian police have seized about 70,000 dishes”. The government often jams the satellite signal, though FARSI1 and other channels reappear on Iranian television sets only a few days afterwards, now broadcasting on a different signal.
Movies are another major area of popular culture. We’ve seen an example already of how movies can have an effect in Southeast Asia in the 1920’s and 30’s. While the situation in Iran is obviously not an exact parallel, Iran’s relationship with American cinema is an interesting facet of Iranians relationship with the West. During the 1979 revolution, western and western-style movies were perceived as a moral threat to Islam, in no small part due to their relatively free depiction of women. Revolutionaries burned down 180 out of Iran’s 436 movie theatres, including the infamous Rex Cinema fire in Abadan, where some 300 people were perished in the flames.
With time the Regime began to understand both the importance and the inevitability of cinema in Iran, and made steps towards integrating and allowing for both a domestic film industry and the ideally limited presence of western films. In addition to the films that circulate Iran on the always-present black market, there have been several screenings of Western films in Iranian theatres, albeit heavily content edited at times. Movies like Terminator 3, and The Aviator reached Iranian cinemas, and Michael Moore’s anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 was practically embraced by the regime. As a whole though, American movies make up a small percentage of the films that are officially shown in Iran, with the majority being more morally oriented films from Hong Kong or India. In 2005 the then-incoming president Ahmadinejad issued a ban on films “which promote secular, feminist, liberal or nihilist ideas and degrade oriental culture.” To those in the know, the content of this ban is nothing new; rather it is a show of force by Ahmadinejad’s government that exemplifies their renewed attempts to suppress Western influences from entering Iran.
There are movies that repel instead of attract. Not Without My Daughter, about an American woman and her daughter trying to escape from her abusive Iranian husband, and 300, which depicted the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae as monstrous and brutal, were both met with heavy criticism from both the Regime and many average Iranians. While the existence of these two films and others like them has not as a whole ruined the entertainment value of American films for the average Iranian citizen, they do speak to the inherent cultural and political gap that often manifests itself in American media.
Interestingly, unlike homegrown Iranian television, the Iranian film industry is flourishing and internationally respected. The 2011 film A Separation made history by being the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award. Iranian films are well regarded in large part due to their unique Iranian sensibilities. Despite the international acclaim of this domestic film industry, the regime puts lots of restrictions on its filmmakers, who face fines, jail, or worse should they make films whose content displeases the regime. “In the short term, limitations can increase creativity,” Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director of A Separation noted. “But in the long run, they’re stifling.” This exemplifies the problem facing both Iranian creators and the average entertainment-seeking Iranian; there are numerous prohibitions and censorship of imported entertainment, but restrictions make it difficult for the domestic popular culture to flourish. With their government providing few officially sanctioned or approved means of entertainment, it is little wonder so many Iranians turn to the black market for illicit Western entertainment.
In July of 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini banned the playing of music on Iranian airwaves, claiming “like Opium, music also stupefies persons listening to it and makes their brain inactive and frivolous.” Western music, even classical music, and pop music were especially verboten. For fifteen years the only legal music in Iran were “war hymns, traditional songs or anodyne instrumentals.” As revolutionary zeal faded with time, restrictions on music were eased. Classical music found its way back on the air, and by the time of Khomeini’s death Iranian pop music, stylistically influenced by Western pop music, could be heard on television and the radio. The softening of the bans on pop music was in part a means to combat the black market imports of music from Los Angeles, and when domestically made popular music was more freely available, audiocassette imports from Los Angeles dropped by 30 percent. President Khatami’s two terms saw a further easing of enforcement. Western music was easily accessible through the black market, and instrumental versions of western pop songs could again be found on even state media programs.
In recent years this trend of the relaxation of enforcement has been set back, in large part due to the election of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In late 2005 Ahmadinejad, as head of the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council decreed that the IRIB must refrain from playing any decadent Western music and instead play revolutionary-era music and traditional Persian music. The renewal of the bans has been met with a lot of disdain among Iranian musicians. “The decision shows a lack of knowledge and experience,” Iranian guitarist Babak Riahipour lamented. Ali Rahbari, conductor of Tehran’s symphony orchestra, quit his job and left Iran in protest of the Regime’s treatment of musicians, but not before he played a week of sold out shows of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was the first time it had been played since the 1979 Revolution, and conservatives accused him of promoting Western values by playing it.
Despite the longstanding bans on Western music, and the renewal of their enforcement, Western music is still widely listened to by Iranians, making its way through the Internet, satellites, and Iran’s sizeable black market much like Western movies and television. Metallica in particular has a large youth following, and has inspired several imitators who make music in mold that is clearly not a very traditional Iranian style.
Perhaps more concerning to the Iranian Regime is the myriad of Iranian musicians imitating or adopting aspects of Western musical styles, themes, and inspirations. Among these are O-Hum, which describes its sound on their website as a “mix of western rock music melted with Persian music, scales and Instruments.” The band was formed in 1999, and was one of the first underground bands to emerge, and faced substantial censorship for its Western influences. More recently rap and hip-hop have emerged in Iran. Hich-kas (which translates to “nobody” in English,”) are inspired by American rappers like Tupac and Eminem, and emulate both the vocal styles and the activism of many American rappers. “They complain about unemployment, the way [Iranians] live with violence, and the government ignoring the people.” There are even several instances of women rappers, including an artist who goes by the name Salome, who goes without a hijab in the video for her song Don’t Muddy the Water, which is critical about the state and the abuse of Islam in Iran. The underground music scene in Iran is growing larger, and it is easy to see why the Regime is eager to stamp out the influences of Western music. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan during the 2009 Green movement was an especially tragic and visible reminder of the brutality of the regime. Agha-Soltan was a young woman took underground singing lessons, and who was killed by a sniper’s bullet after attending an opposition rally. A video of her death propagated around the world, propelled her to martyrdom. Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition candidate for president lamented that “a young girl, who did not have a weapon in her soft hands, or a grenade in her pocket, became a victim of thugs who are supported by a horrifying intelligence apparatus.”
American popular culture often appeals especially to the youth demographic. In Iran, more than 60% of the population is under 30, and a quarter of the population of 75 million is under 15. These statistics are relatively old amongst Middle Eastern nations, as a shocking 43% of Iraq is under 15 years of age. It is perhaps this reason why the government of Iran is increasingly prone to banning American pop-culture especially made for children, and the market for imported toys is large. In 2011 Iran imported £36 million worth of toys, and it is believed that an additional £13 million more were smuggled into the country.
In an attempt to regulate what types of toys Iranian children were playing with, the Regime has banned the sale or owning several American toys in the face of substantial demand for them. Iran first banned Mattel’s iconically American Barbie dolls in 1996, on account of the toy’s “destructive cultural and social consequences,” as the full-figured and fashion-conscious Barbie stood in opposition to Iran’s ideals of Islamic modesty. The ban was not strictly enforced until early 2012, where Iran’s morality police started busting toyshops that had the dolls on display. Instead, they supported the sale of the officially sanctioned Sara and Dara dolls, which are fully compliant with Iranian dress codes. These dolls are much less popular with Iranian children. Sara and Dara mainly see use as a diversion. “We still sell Barbies,” admitted one shopkeeper, “but secretly, and put these in the window to make the police think we are just selling these kinds of dolls.”
In February of this year, Iran banned the sale of toys of characters from the cartoon The Simpsons. Mohammad Hossein Farjoo, the Secretary for Policy-making at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Tehran, said that the ban was made so as not to promote The Simpsons television show, which would clearly draw the ire of the Regime. The Simpsons is obviously not broadcast on any Iranian channel, but no doubt can be found beaming through an illegal satellite dish somewhere in Tehran. Toys that have electronic speakers that played western music, and any toys that appear to promote alcohol consumption like some toy kitchen sets were also banned.
Interestingly, in the same interview Farjoo also said that while Barbie and The Simpsons were not allowed in Iran, American superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man were allowable imports because they fight for the oppressed. That products featuring Superman, a character created by a Jew; who fights for truth, justice, and the American way; and who in one comic flew to Iran in support of the 2009 Green Movement, is allowed into Iran is surprising to say the least. Regardless, Iran has announced the production of one toy that the Regime is sure to approve of; a model of the top-secret American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel drone that fell into Iranian hands after it was downed in December of 2011.
The limits of the Regimes fear of American popular-culture extend even to abstract art. Surprisingly, the government of Iran owns American artist Jackson Pollock’s most valuable work entitled Mural on Indian Red Ground. The painting originally made its way to Iran as a purchase of the Shah’s wife, and became nationalized after the Revolution of 1979. Despite the painting’s value and prestige, it is very seldom shown, as it is deemed to be a decadent western work. The painting spends most of its time in underground storage. That a purely abstract painting could be so sequestered says a lot. It is surely partially a knee-jerk reaction of the Regime to take a stand against anything American, but the painting also has an unintentional agenda. According to art critic C.B. Liddell, Pollock’s paintings were important as “during the Cold War they served as ideological symbols of the ‘total freedom’ available in the West.” That the Regime continues to be wary of these minute soft power implications of paint splashes on a canvas is telling.
In addition to the western entertainment that makes its way into Iran, a surprisingly large amount of American consumer products reach Iranian shores, both through legal and illegal means. Such commerce may not be strictly popular culture in the way that entertainment is, but consumer culture and popular culture are highly intertwined, and compose a major part of American life. The United States government lists $229,505,000 total in exports to Iran last year. Many more American-owned products enter Iran through subsidiaries from other countries, or are illegally smuggled. The island of Kish off the coast of Iran is a major means through which American products enter Iran, even in instances where neither entity approves. Described as being to Iran what “Hong Kong [is] to China,” the 35 square-mile resort island is a free trade zone that sees 15% of all Iran’s imports. Many Iranian traders buy American products in bulk at any of Kish’s many shopping malls, and then take them, either illegally or with permits, back to the mainland to sell at a markup.
Using just the example of soda, an interesting, if not entirely unfamiliar narrative of Western culture versus Iranian culture can be seen. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are two of the most typical American products, and their ubiquity extends to Iran as well. As alcohol is banned in Iran, soda is a popular alternative, and American companies have managed to capture more than half of the Iranian market for sodas mainly through Irish subsidiaries. The economic drive of these companies, combined with their product’s appeal to Iranian consumers has allowed them to prosper despite Regime hardliners who denounce Coke and Pepsi, claiming that the name of the latter stands for “Pay Each Penny to Save Israel.” Coca-Cola’s website even has a “Middle East Rumors section,” where it dispels rumors like that the Coca-Cola logo is offensive to Muslims, or that boycotting Coke takes a stand against America. Coke answers this last rumor by claiming that although “the Coca-Cola Company and our products are often regarded as American, the fact is that The Coca-Cola Company is a truly international company, operating worldwide in more than 200 countries.” This answer is exactly as calculatedly public relations savvy as one might expect, but it illuminates both the Muslim resentment of American companies, and the increasing omnipresence of American companies and culture that result from globalization.
These archetypal American products are so recognizable and desired that there are numerous imitators. Zam-Zam cola, for instance, is “packaged exactly like American Coke which makes one appreciate not having copyright laws in Iran.” For almost any other big American brand, if you can’t find it in Iranian stores, than you’ll surely be able to find an Iranianized version of it. American products are held in high regard, and they sell very well.
While this is good for international economics, many in Iran have reason to dislike the increasingly ubiquity of American consumer goods. Saeed Jalilian, the deputy CEO of Sasan (an Iranian company that distributes both Pepsi and domestic Iranian sodas) foresees “a younger, richer Iran forcing out the cheaper and politically correct local brands like Zam-zam in favor of foreign brands.” The fear that the demand for Western products might lead to a displacement of Iranian products and culture is a reoccurring one, and the widespread appeal of American brands over domestic ones is clearly disconcerting. One telling anecdote of the greater impact of the popular appeal of these products comes from an Iranian woman living in America. Upon going to a neighborhood market while visiting her homeland, she notes, “the paradox of living an Iranian life and longing for an American one lies within most of [the market’s] custumers. And [the market’s manager] is smart enough to make sure they are getting some of it even if it can be found in an expensive tube of Colgate toothpaste or bottle of Heinz ketchup.”
A major part of Western popular culture that has not been addressed yet is Internet culture. The Internet is a major vehicle through which American popular culture enters Iran. The Internet in Iran exists in a highly censored state, as the Regime is looking to block sites that are immoral, promote western culture, and most critically for the Regime, aid in dissent. The tech-savvy in Iran have little trouble getting around these content barricades, and they are helped by foreign efforts. The United States has engaged in a sort of guerilla warfare style of public diplomacy by making Internet proxy’s available to Iranians so they can surf the web unimpeded. This is an interesting mix of active and passive soft power, as by opening up the web, America is opening up Iranians to a wide variety of content, including Western popular culture. Lance Cottrel, the President of Anonymizer, the company that provides the proxy, sums the opportunity up nicely. “Dissident sites, religious sites, the L.L. Bean catalog — we point them to the Voice of America site, but they can go anywhere,”
Social media sites are a major player in the American popular culture scene. They are often banned in Iran. Mehdi Jafari, head of the technology and intelligence section of the Pupil’s Basij militia claimed, “because the exchange of information over social networks cannot be monitored or controlled, sites like Facebook counteract religious values in Iran.” Monoliths representing Facebook, Youtube and Google were stoned at an event in 2011 as a symbolic rejection of their values and the dangers they represented to Iran. However, whatever popular culture implications social media sites have is secondary to their active ability to aid in dissent, and is therefore somewhat outside the scope of this essay.
Having established that a substantial amount of Western popular culture makes it to Iran, and that there is a large demand for it from a widespread Iranian audience, the question of what this all means comes into play. Western Culture exists in Iran yes, but does it have any broader impact or implications? The most damning evidence that the soft power aspects of Western popular culture are having an impact is the Iranian government is extremely worried about it. In November of 2009, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recognized the existence of a “soft war” between the west and Iran. Khamenei stated that the West was using a “mixture of cultural means and advanced communication equipment to spread lies and rumors and cause doubt and divisions among the people” and that the “fight against the enemy’s soft war is our main priority.” Iran is faced with numerous “hard power” issues, but still views Western culture to be among the biggest threats it faces.
Why then, is the Iranian government so fearful of the impact Western culture can have? There are numerous political, moral and religious reason reasons why the Regime dislikes Western popular culture. For starters, anything that portrays America, the “Great-Satan” in a positive light goes against one of the central narratives of the Iranian government. American popular culture that, without and intentional international bias, portrays America as a fairer and more fun place than Iran makes Iran seem worse by comparison. Popular culture is part of the reason why many Iranian teenagers claim that they have “learned to interpret just the opposite of things on [state-run] TV because it’s all lies,” America, it seems, is not such a bad place as the Regime wants its people to believe it is. The mere existence of such entertainment makes the difference in freedom of speech and expression between the two nations all the more apparent. There is the very real concern that if Iranians are seeking out Western entertainment, they might very well be seeking an accompanying Western lifestyle as well.
There is also the fear that Western entertainment can distract Iranians from their proper duties as citizens, students and Muslims. The frivolity of popular culture goes against the generally stern and efficient attitudes of the ruling classes. One conservative Ayatollah characterized the issue by noting, “if a young student surfs the Internet until late in the night and is not looking for ‘scientific subjects,’ or if he watches movies and forgets his morning prayers, he cannot become a pious man,” Entertainment, especially entertainment meant for a predominantly Christian, Jewish or non-religious populace goes against some of the more strict interpretations of Islam that are often held by members of the Regime. Western entertainment detracts from the importance and role of the government as well, giving the Regime a politically motivated reason to oppose its import as well. Fun breaks Iranians free from the traditions and reverence so important to the foundation and existence of the Islamic Revolutionary government, and this distraction is especially offensive when it comes from a hated enemy. According to Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois, the Regime finds “fun ethics as a competition that can take away people from their support base. So, in that way it of course diminishes their power.” President Ahmadinejad would surely much prefer that young Iranians were eagerly supporting and following the government rather than the comings and goings of the latest American television drama.
However, there are those who see a positive side to the distraction that Western entertainment can cause. In the wake of the failure of 2009 Green Movement, some conservative analysts in Iran noticed a decline in political activism and activity in the streets and on the web. One attributed some of this to the increasing rampancy of Western entertainment, noting how “last year it was all Mousavi. This year it’s all Salvador [a character from the Colombian soap Body of Desire, which is broadcast on FARSI1].” Those who are exhausted from a failed movement may be seeking respite through foreign entertainment, engaging in an largely unintentional symbolic battle rather than a physical battle against the Regime in the streets of Tehran. By and large though, this silver lining for the regime is not enough to assuage the rest of their fears of the corrupting power of Western popular culture, especially those based in deep seeded religious or cultural beliefs.
It is crucial to remember that while the appeal of Western popular culture and entertainment is very widespread, it is not universal. Indeed there are many who, due to deeply held moral, religious, or political beliefs, reject the implicit messages and morals in Western entertainment. For these people, catching an episode of How I Met Your Mother on FARSI1 does not endear them to the American way of life, but repels them. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, an Iranian writer from the 1960’s articulated this concept of Gharbzadegi, meaning “Westoxification,” or “West-Struck-Ness.”
For some, resentment of Western culture comes not so much from the content of the Western culture, but in the fact that it is overtaking domestic Iranian arts and cultures. “Our culture today is import-based,” said Kayhan Kalhor, a prominent Iranian classical musician. Kalhor is not flatly against the West, as he lived abroad for years and has a well-rounded understanding of several musical types. His complaint is due to the fact that “our society has been static… and has got by on imitation. We looked at the west, and we praised it to the skies… we need things that belong to us.” This very understandable and legitimate concern, and it fits well with Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and the seemingly unstoppable and all consuming tide of Western culture. A counterpoint to this viewpoint is that the censorship of the Regime is already severely curtailing the extent to which domestic arts can flourish. One Iranian teenager echoed these concerns, stating that although Titanic was his favorite movie that “he would prefer to watch Iranian films if only the government would lift restrictions on content.” In many ways Iranian artist and creators who wish to create original, honest work are caught between a rock and a hard place.
History has numerous examples of the cultural aspect of soft power failing to make an impact on individuals. Egypt’s Said Qutb lived in the United States for two years, working at Wilson Teachers’ College in Washington D.C., Colorado State College for Education, and Stanford University. When he returned home to Egypt he published The America that I Have Seen, an article that was highly critical of almost all aspects of American society and culture. Qutb was repulsed by American morals, especially how openly sexual American women were. He criticized Hollywood, saying that the films were mainly about “primitive subjects and primitive excitement; this is true of police/crime films and cowboy films,” and took issue with jazz, the popular music of the time. Qutb called it “music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.” Popular culture didn’t engender him to America, if only further repulsed him, and the ideas he conceived while founding the Muslim Brotherhood went on to inspire Al Qaeda.
Another example of the limits of soft power comes from Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto was a Japanese Naval Marshal General who studied at Harvard. He spoke fluent English and generally seemed to enjoy his time in America, and he enjoyed playing poker with his American friends. The soft power appeal of America did not stop him from orchestrating the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Similarly, the popularity of baseball in Japan did not prevent war either. The sport caught on fairly naturally with the citizens of Japan, though the United States was also making a concentrated effort to use baseball as a means of public diplomacy. Though it initially looked as though peace would be a “home run,” World War Two still occurred. On the failure of baseball as effective soft power, an issue of Sporting News from December 1941 commented “No nation which has had intimate contact with baseball as the Japanese could have committed the vicious, infamous deed of December 7, 1941 if the spirit of the game ever had penetrated their yellow hides.”
None of this is to say that soft power is meaningless. Indeed, it is far from it. Soft power, and the effects of Western popular culture are having an effect, but it is an effect that is very hard to measure. Soft power is, by its very nature, intangible, and it is often hard to make sweeping and definitive correlations between soft power and an outcome. The natural difficulties of measuring soft power are compounded by the difficulties of polling the Iranian people. There are very few viable opinion polls in Iran, and only a minute percentage of these polls address questions of popular culture. The Iranian regime does not like outsiders polling their people, or having the results that seem to go against the party line released to the outside world. Abbas Abdi was instrumental to the planning and execution of the taking of hostages at the United States embassy in Tehran. In the following decades he grew dissatisfied with the Regime. In 2002 he worked with an American firm on a poll that asked Iranians if they wanted Iran to have better relations with the United States. He was jailed for five years, accused of selling information and tampering with the polling. Hossein Ghazian, an Iranian sociologist was jailed for four years and six months on charges of “espionage by revealing the opinions of Iranians,” due to working with Gallup and Zogby.
Despite the difficulties in getting relevant opinion polling data out of Iran, there exist some revealing numbers, as well as numerous individual accounts. Given the somewhat irregular nature of soft power, these individual accounts have certain significance to them as well. Ten Nation Impressions of America 2002, a poll conducted by Zogby International is admittedly somewhat dated, but yields some very interesting results. Seventy-five percent of Iranians polled viewed American movies and television favorably, and sixty-four percent viewed American made products favorably. In both cases, younger Iranians and those who had Internet and Satellite TV access were more likely to have positive views of American popular culture, as were those who were unmarried, non-Muslim, and spoke a second language. This considerable positive majority stance on American popular culture and consumer products stands in opposition to the study’s findings on policy. Unsurprisingly, ninety-six percent of Iranians had an unfavorable opinion of America’s Palestine policies, and eighty-four percent viewed America’s policies toward Arab nations in general unfavorably as well. Ninety-eight percent were against America’s War on Terror.
A more recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion in 2007 has slightly more reserved results. According to their polling, fifty percent of Iranians thought that having movies, television and music from other parts of the world available in Iran was a very good or somewhat good thing. Forty-eight percent thought it was very bad or somewhat bad. Sixty-three percent thought that globalization was mostly good for Iran. The poll asked Americans the same questions, and eighty-seven percent of Americans questioned though that importing American cultural influences to Iran was a good thing, indicating that Americans have an optimistic opinion on their popular culture’s appeal.
What larger effects, if any, do these numbers indicating favorability towards American popular culture have? A 2004 study entitled Love and Hate: Anti-Americanism in The Islamic World used the 2002 Zogby polling numbers to examine a correlation between policy-orientated anti-Americanism, and societal and cultural anti-Americanism in the Middle Eastern countries polled. It found that while those who had favorable opinions of American culture could also hold opinions on United States’ policies that ran the gambit of stances, there were no respondents who held favorable opinions on American policies that had unfavorable views of American culture, clearly indicating that our culture has more currency than our policies. A joint systematic review study between researchers at the University of Tehran and Kent State University found that Iranians tended to have more favorable opinions of American people than Americans had of Iranians. They attributed this to the multiple sources of media Iranians consume, especially those with satellite and Internet access. Popular culture is part of this variety, and it helps give a favorable impression of the American people.
Thought the results are not universal, it is apparent that, at the very least, a small majority of Iranians have positive views of American popular culture and people. The question that still remains is if a liking of American entertainment has any implications beyond that. The Love and Hate study would seem to argue that as a broad trend, there is not a significant correlation to be found. Their analysis of the data “indicates that a large portion of respondents speak of America with two minds: appreciatively when they are induced to evoke aspects of America’s polity and negatively when they are asked to focus on America’s foreign policy.” With Iran especially, general opposition to all of America’s policies and government was so universally strong that it seems as though “there is no difference in the dispersion of the propensity to oppose American culture and society at low and high values of the policy attitudinal dimension.” In other words, liking popular culture did not correlate in any significant way to feeling more favorable towards the United States government. While this may seem disheartening at first, its important to remember the extent of the conflict Iran and the United States have, and to take solace in the fact that Iranians are able to separate America’s government from its people. Iranians generally seem to be at the very least indifferent, if not fond of the American people and the entertainment they produce. The soft power appeal of pop culture alone is not enough to close the gap. Still, soft power can work in smaller, less over-arching ways as well.
It is also important to remember just how limited and inadequate the polling data in Iran is. It is hard to get truly insightful questions approved, and harder still to get candid answers to questions posed by foreigners. A 2011 RAND survey entitled What do Iranians Think? was very cognizant of this difficulty, and had questions that asked the respondents comfort with the being surveyed, as comfort level made a difference in many of the answers. It is entirely possible that part of the reasons there do not seem to be any larger trends is that, given that this is not a very researched area, there is simply a lack of honest and relevant information from which to draw them.
Indeed, these larger trends are difficult to identify, and are harder still to prove outright. Focusing only on these trends risks overlooking the small scale and individual effects that soft power can have. Think of the East Germans who grew up on the other side of the Cold War loving America because of the Hershey’s chocolate that was dropped to them during the Berlin airlift. Or the more directly relevant example of the Ali Rahbari, the former conductor of Tehran’s symphony orchestra, who left the Iran in response to the Regimes renewed crackdowns on music. This is by no means the only such incident of one of Iran’s more educated minds leaving the country. According to a 2006 study by the International Monetary Fund, Iran had the highest rate of brain drain out of the ninety countries they measured. There were relatively few educated Iranians leaving the country before the Islamic Revolution, but that number has skyrocketed. In 2006, some one hundred eighty thousand to two hundred thousand Iranian graduates attempted to leave the country. This mass exodus of educated minds would seem to be helping the United States, as it costs Iran upwards of forty-billion dollars a year, and the CIA is covertly encouraging this brain drain to weaken Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The reasons for this are numerous, with the most important reason perhaps being the extremely limited job market educated Iranians face. Cultural and political oppression are another motivating factor for fleeing the country, and it is not difficult to posture that American popular culture plays some small part in making the United States one of the more attractive destinations.
It is also important to remember that younger, wealthier, more educated Iranians are the ones who are generally more receptive and favorable to American popular culture. This segment of the population is also the portion of the most likely and most eager to affect change. As mentioned before, Iran has a large youth demographic, and they are the most politically active youth democratic among all the nations of the Islamic world. It’s highly unlikely that Iranians will take the risks necessary to achieve change just for the sake of being able to watch some American TV. As part of a larger picture though, American popular culture has potential, as it illuminates attractive aspects of the United States’ culture and freedoms, and at the same time revealing the strictness and failures of the current Iranian regime. The youth are more likely to like American popular culture, and are the most likely to want to change the Iran they live in.
What should the United States do with this information? There may not be a substantial trend of favorability to American policy thanks to access to American popular culture, but substantial amounts of anecdotal and observational evidence indicates that Western entertainment is having an effect. It is angering the Regime, and the appeal of American popular culture is furthering the increasingly unpopular opinion of the Iranian Regime as a restrictive and oppressive government. American popular culture is therefore playing a part in weakening the support base and wasting the resources of an unabashedly anti-American government. While it falls short of making Iranians pro-American, American popular culture is also engendering many Iranians to aspects of American culture and its people. That Iranians are able to separate between Washington D.C. and the average American is a positive sign. If popular culture helps make the distinction a positive one that allows for the Iranian people to have a more accurate and better rounded view of America as a whole entity, rather than a black and white “Great Satan,” then its presence in the region is a good thing.
Currently, the United States has several sanctions limiting trade with Iran in an attempt to put political pressure on the Regime and in response to their nuclear weapons program. While these have been effective one harming the economy of Iran, and due to a ban on trade of airplane parts, severely impacted the safety of Iranian skies, the political ends of this hard power exercise have not materialized. More than fifty percent of Iranians polled in the RAND survey responded that they thought the sanctions were having either a positive or no effect on Iran. Indeed “the political effect of the sanctions in terms of achieving their objectives, however, has been minimal.”
Perhaps then, the United States is going about certain aspects of these sanctions the wrong way. While it makes sense to prohibit the export of more explicitly hard power good to Iran, pushing for more soft goods, like popular culture and entertainment could have a positive effect. Without making the presence of the American government widely known, sponsoring more ventures like FARSI1 or increased Internet access for Iranian citizens furthers the soft power goals of the United States. There is a significant amount of American popular culture making its way to Iran already, and it is have a niche effect on the Iranian populace. The government might want to make an effort to increase the unique effect popular culture is having in Iran by making it so that more western entertainment reaches the Iranian people.
Popular culture is a narrow aspect of soft power, which by its very nature is an ambiguous, variable, and difficult to prove entity. That there seems to be a lack of a smoking gun linking American television to Iranian policies that are in the United States’ interest is unsurprising. Movies, toys and television cannot alone combat a vehemently anti-American government, a wide difference in culture, and a resentment that is over a half century in the making. What they can do though, is continue to have a significant and growing presence in Iran, and make a more subtle impact. American popular culture finds an audience wherever it goes, even in the Middle East amongst the citizens of one of our sworn enemies. That popular culture is having any effect on Iranians speaks to the dynamic, attractive nature of our popular culture, and the failures and the cultural fault lines of the Iranian regime. American popular culture is making the United States seem culturally appealing, if not governmentally appealing to many Iranians, and weakening the regime’s image. An industry designed to entertain and sell to Americans is unintentionally entertaining the rest of the world, and selling a positive view of America to our enemies.
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