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Chicago Tribune May 31, 2006
Airwave blitz on Iran: Luna Shad is the face of a U.S.
Wed May 31, 2006 05:39

Airwave blitz on Iran: Luna Shad is the face of a U.S. cultural offensive meant to spark change among the youth of the Persian Gulf nation

By Cam Simpson
Washington Bureau
Chicago Tribune May 31, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The face of the Bush administration's new favorite weapon against Iran's cleric-dominated regime has the cheekbones of a Vogue cover girl.

Once a week, digital bits carrying new images and the Persian voice of Luna Shad--an Iran-born actress who spent her formative years in Paris, wears knee-high boots and carries a Louis Vuitton handbag--rain down from American-leased satellites and are collected in antenna dishes across Iran.

Although it's probably little more than an educated guess, U.S. officials say up to 2 million Iranians may be watching Shad's 30-minute broadcast, "Next Chapter," as she introduces a story about underground garage bands. It follows her piece on a political psychologist who dissects Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad along with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein.

"Next Chapter," is aimed at Iran's youth. But the demographics aren't about appealing to advertisers. The show's sponsor, the U.S. government, is trying to foment change in Iran.

The Bush administration is moving urgently to deal with Iran, a nation that poses what many believe to be the most vexing foreign policy challenge facing the U.S. But it is Shad's U.S.-sponsored broadcast and others like it that are to be the most costly and visible beneficiaries of the administration's latest push, despite questions about their effectiveness.

With Tehran's nuclear program grabbing world attention, the administration is seeking $75million in emergency funding from Congress to counter the clerics. The request represents a dramatic shift for a White House that previously had all but ignored attempts to influence events in Iran; just three years ago it invested only $1.5 million on "democracy promotion."

About 10 times that amount, or $15 million, would go toward such programs under the current request, mainly via groups that work with reformers. Independent-appearing "surrogate" news media would be seeded with about $20 million more.

The biggest pot, however, would bolster existing Persian-language TV and radio programs financed by American taxpayers, such as "Next Chapter." Shad's show is produced by the Persian desk of Voice of America in Washington, which would share roughly $30 million of the emergency funding with Radio Farda, another government-financed Persian service.

The $75 million request is contained in emergency appropriations legislation for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. The House pared the Iran request to $56 million, but more money for broadcasts such as Shad's remains untouched. The Senate version includes all $75 million.

No matter which one wins out, Washington looks like it wants to spend money on Iran in a fashion not seen since 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, passed out CIA-supplied cash on the streets of Tehran to stoke the coup that brought Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power.

The means today are dramatically different. And Shad, like many of her colleagues, rejects the notion that she's selling regime change.

"What I try to do is just give them information on all sides, so they can just choose themselves," Shad said.

Staffers at Voice of America also recoil at the suggestion they might feel more pressure under the growing gaze of an eager White House.

Yet Shad, 34, also says that her "soft approach" of blending politics and culture may be a greater challenge for Tehran than a blatant propaganda campaign, especially given that over half of Iran's population was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"Culture is always the best way to have an impact on people," Shad said during an interview at VOA studios in Washington where her show is taped.

U.S.-financed international broadcasts have bounced about the globe since World War II. They were a Washington favorite during the Cold War, including at the CIA, which funded radio programming as part of its psychological warfare campaign against communists.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did some of the enthusiasm for taxpayer-funded broadcasts.

Washington reinvigorated such broadcasting after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, launching Arabic-language radio and satellite television networks in an effort to burnish America's image across much of the Middle East.

The Government Accountability Office says it now is examining questions about the effectiveness of the two 24-hour operations, Al-Hurra satellite television and Radio Sawa, though the Bush administration strongly supports them.

Well before the administration's current emergency funding request for Persian programming, the growing sense of urgency about Iran had landed at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all foreign broadcasting efforts. Given the political popularity within Washington of the Arabic channels, it seemed inevitable that similar enthusiasm would spread to Persian broadcasts because of the growing confrontation with Iran.

In 2003, the BBG's controversial Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, called Washington from a board meeting in Prague to urgently order the Voice of America's main Persian-language television show to go daily from once a week. In the fall of 2004, he persuaded then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to push for funding that would allow VOA to boost its Persian-language television programming from just nine original hours per week to 28 per week.

Even without the emergency funding, Shad's show is scheduled to go daily this summer. Executives at VOA envision it also going "newsier," while maintaining its youthful edge. Think Anderson Cooper, in Persian and with Shad, instead of the CNN star.

Emergency funds would allow for other new programs and enhance existing shows like hers.

Although these efforts are openly compared to Cold War anti-communist broadcasts, David Jackson, the VOA chief, insisted in a recent interview that his journalists do not do anyone's political bidding.

Earlier this month, Jackson brought his mantra on VOA's independence to a forum on Iran broadcasting at American University, where he faced skeptical Iranian expatriates.

For some of them the tableau evoked by a Washington-financed media effort includes images from their own tumultuous past, such as American bribes paid to Iranian journalists in the 1950s.

"Nobody, but nobody, in Iran believes that state-funded broadcasters could act independently," said Roya Kashefi, an Iranian who moderated Jackson's panel. She heads the London office of the Association of Iranian Researchers.

Her group broadcast Jackson's panel on the Internet. She says 31,000 people in Iran tuned in. When it was over, she said, many of them inundated her office with e-mails complaining about Jackson. "It was amazing," Kashefi said.

But Shireen Hunter, an Iranian scholar and expert at Georgetown University, says the broadcasting efforts may be the only tool at America's disposal.

"I'm not against it at all," Hunter said. "It's important that we maintain at least some kind of contact with that society. All I am saying is we shouldn't expect too much from it."

Shad says her major concern about the new attention is that she won't meet her own expectations.

"Right now the quality is very good," she said. "We have to keep it that way."

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