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In Iran, hardliners successfully orchestrate takeover of state TV

Iran's state TV has been taken over by hard-line figures who use it to transmit ideological and hard-line views targeting the Reformists and opposition, including in entertainment shows.
Men walk past a mural in the Iranian capital Tehran, on October 11, 2022. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

TEHRAN — State TV has long been recognized as one of the most powerful and influential institutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, in the past two years, Vahid Jalili, a hard-line figure, has taken the helm causing concern even among conservatives, with his primary goal to promote the Islamic Republic's ideology in the most hard-line and extreme way. 

In 2021, a power struggle ensued between two like-minded groups of hard liners and conservatives vying for control of state TV. The state TV network holds a complete monopoly over domestic radio and television services, leaving no room for alternative channels in Iran. 

This monopoly grants significant influence to state TV, allowing it to shape policies and mold the opinions of viewers to a great extent.

Supreme leader appointees

According to a former Iranian official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Hossein Mohammadi, a senior figure in the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sought to retain control of state TV within his own circle. However, an emerging powerful hard-line circle, led by former nuclear chief negotiator Saeed Jalili, thwarted Mohammadi's attempts. With the support of Mesbaholhoda Bagheri, son-in-law of the leader and brother of current nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, Jalili succeeded in defeating Mohammadi's plan to install Aboldreza Rahmani Fazli, the former interior minister known for his role in the murder of hundreds of protesters during the 2019 unrest. 

Consequently, the supreme leader appointed Peyman Jebeli, hard-line chairman of Press TV, the English mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic, as the head of state TV. Jebeli was previously the spokesperson of Jalili's nuclear negotiation team (2009-13) during talks with the West over Iran's nuclear program.  

When US President Joe Biden assumed office and negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) began, Jebeli was the head of Press TV. However, as the talks between the negotiation team of former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the US reached an important stage, Press TV began to undermine the talks by leaking sensitive and inaccurate news. This was to the extent that former negotiator Abbas Araghchi even spoke out angrily against state TV. 

Upon Jebeli's appointment, he quickly installed Vahid Jalili, brother of Saeed Jalili, as his deputy in state TV.  

Backed by powerful hard liners inside the establishment, Vahid Jalili began his project to take over state TV four years ago. He dared to target the influential Hossein Mohammadi in the media publicly, calling the senior Khamenei’s office official and his circle "the harsh group" with "mafia-like" approach. 

Jalili's takeover

Following this attack, Jalili came under the verbal attacks of conservatives and figures close to Mohammadi. In response, Ehsan Mohammad Hosna, head of the Owj media organization affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), threw his weight behind Jalili. “Be patient for a while … the young revolutionary [generation of the establishment] have risen," said Mohammad Hosna, addressing Jalili in September 2019. Jalili then kept his silence, which brought him finally what he was looking for.  

According to a source within the organization, Vahid Jalili effectively leads state TV, with Jebeli following his lead. “All the state TV's key channels have been appointed also by the order of state TV,” the source added. 

To understand Jalili's views, one should take a look at the Ofogh Channel, which, according to conservative Farhikhtegan daily, was unofficially run by Jalili’s circle. 

The Ofogh (Horizon) Channel was unexpectedly launched by state TV in 2014. During the tenure of former moderate President Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), the channel ran an aggressive campaign against his government and the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with the United States.

The channel's stance was staunchly against the Reformists while actively promoting hard-line and extremist religious views in Iran. It dedicated a substantial portion of its programming to covering IRGC regional policies and their "holy" presence in Syria, in an effort to galvanize public support. Indeed, the channel was entirely ideological, even in its most entertaining broadcasts. 

Staff changes

Now, under the supervision of the man behind Ofogh, all the state TV channels have adopted a similar approach, with a focus on ideological messaging rather than entertainment, including the production and broadcast of numerous ideological songs across different channels. Most of the moderate TV hosts, such as Ehsan Alikhani and Ali Ziya, have been removed and replaced with new, religious and hard-line hosts called the “young revolutionaries." 

The changes are not limited to the hosts, as many independent directors have also been sidelined, and the opportunity to make series is being offered exclusively to young revolutionaries. Even state TV's Channel 3, previously known for its entertainment shows, has shifted its focus to "entertaining" programs with religious themes. For instance, they have a show similar to "America's Got Talent," with religious eulogists as judges testing new, young eulogists. In addition, a stand-up comedy show with fully ideological and hard-line views has recently launched, featuring "young revolutionary" singers and comedians targeting the Reformists and opposition forces. The number of security and spy TV series has also increased.  

Many of the young revolutionaries who are now holding positions in state TV were groomed through the Ammar Popular Film Festival, which was founded and run by Vahid Jalili. The festival was practically a workshop for nurturing a generation of hard-line and “revolutionary” directors.   

In 2014, Amir-Hossein Sabeti, a hard-line host, praised Jalili for founding the Ammar film festival as it paved the way for “the revolutionaries to [enter] the art and cinema area” and "cinema is no longer an exclusive field for intellectuals” because of it. 

Jalili is currently realizing his dreams and ideal goals from his decade-long tenure running the Ammar Popular Film Festival. Throughout his career, Jalili had been highly critical of the minimal presence and representation of hard liners and revolutionaries in Iranian cinema. One of the festival's winners — Mohammad-Mahdi Khaleghi, who now produces documentaries for state TV — said in 2021 that "the main objective of Ammar is to identify and introduce artists interested in Islamic Revolution issues to the media community." 

It seems that Jalili, acting as the behind-the-scenes chairman of state TV, has selectively chosen the state TV audience, catering exclusively to hard liners and excluding all other viewers. It is now a waiting game to see what happens next and if his rivals will be able to remove him.

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