The real ‘back pain’ behind head of Iranian broadcaster’s resignation

First Published in Al-Monitor

Among the buildings lining the northernmost stretch of Tehran’s legendary Valiasr Avenue stands an imposing glass structure that is home to one of the most crucial centers of power in Iran — the state-run broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It is often simply referred to as the Glass Building, which is ironic given that its occupant is one of the least transparent organizations in the country. This is a lesson that Mohammad Sarafraz learned the hard way.

Directly appointed in November 2014 by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Sarafraz took the helm promising change and reform. On May 10, however, he became the first IRIB director in recent history to resign, after only 18 months in office. His three predecessors each served two consecutive five-year terms. Sarafraz cited problems with “back pain” as the reason for his resignation, but few are buying his explanation. Al-Monitor followed up on Sarafraz​’s resignation, speaking to several sources within IRIB.

With a billion-dollar budget and more than 50,000 employees, IRIB is a behemoth known by friends and foes as spectacularly wasteful. Officials in the Kuala Lumpur headquarters of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), which counts IRIB as a member and whose secretary-general is Iranian, told Al-Monitor that IRIB’s lack of transparency is legendary in the community of broadcasting bureaucrats.

“They have one of the largest budgets for any broadcasting organization, and yet produce so little that is of quality,” a Western source close to the ABU told Al-Monitor by phone from Kuala Lumpur. “Sarafraz was supposed to change this, but many of us were skeptical of his chances of success.”

Indeed, Sarafraz’s 18 rocky months as director provide enough material for a whodunit with multiple subplots. Given his insider status, as previously detailed by Al-Monitor, Sarafraz pulled no punches from the outset of his term. He announced that his mission was to downsize and rationalize the behemoth, and he implemented extensive changes in management.

Prior to being appointed IRIB chief, Sarafraz had headed the broadcaster’s foreign-language operations for more than two decades. “He … didn’t know just how much power the [political] establishment wields in the organization,” a mid-level IRIB manager told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He thought he could just walk in and change everything.”

In the management shake-up, Sarafraz replaced Ali Darabi, the powerful head of television, with Ali-Asghar Pourmohammadi. In 2012, Darabi had dismissed Pourmohammadi, who at the time served as the well-liked head of the most popular TV channel. Pourmohammadi gave a controversial farewell speech, attacking then-IRIB director Ezatollah Zarghami for appointing security-linked figures who “won’t pass a test of art nor intellect.” Amid these changes, “no one felt safe. Sarafraz had eyes everywhere,” the IRIB manager told Al-Monitor.

Among Sarafraz’s close confidantes was Shahrzad Mirgholikhan, who had gained prominence after spending five years in a US prison on charges of attempting to smuggle night-vision goggles. Upon Mirgholikhan’s release in 2012, Sarafraz appointed her director of international relations at IRIB’s English-language station, Press TV, which he headed at the time. When Sarafraz moved to the Glass Building, he brought along Mirgholikhan, this time as his special inspector.

According to Iranian sources who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Mirgholikhan poked around everywhere and into everything to stop waste and corruption. It didn’t take long for established interests to feel threatened. Soon, Mirgholikhan, once celebrated as a national hero, was suddenly met with allegations of espionage, corruption and engaging in illicit sexual relationships.

Sources within IRIB told Al-Monitor that Mirgholikhan’s ex-husband, Mahmoud Seif, who is said to be close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and who allegedly led the attempt to obtain the night-vision goggles, was supposedly behind it all. Late last year, Mirgholikhan abruptly left for Oman, which seems to have played a role in her release in the United States. Iranian media subsequently peddled rumors about her marrying into the Omani royal family and involvement in espionage for Washington via Muscat.

Yet, Sarafraz doggedly continued to defend Mirgholikhan, even as she was being slammed as a spy in media outlets linked to the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC. A manager close to Sarafraz took to the pages of IRIB’s newspaper, Jam-e-jam, to claim that Mirgholikhan had been pressured to leave Iran after “revealing the waste at the IRIB.” In March 2015, a London-based publisher released Mirgholikhan’s memoir, which was dedicated to Sarafraz and included an image of her without the mandatory hijab on the cover.

In February, Sarafraz called the allegations against Mirgholikhan “ridiculous.” All the while, two channels on the popular messaging app Telegram — interestingly named Shahrzad Press News and The Glass House — began sharing supposedly incriminating “classified documents,” leading Sarafraz to demand their closure, which was implemented. Hard-line outlets reported that those behind the accounts had been detained the day after Sarafraz’s resignation.

Meanwhile, controversy after controversy dogged the IRIB. Campaigns were organized against a TV series that was deemed insulting to Iranians of Turkic heritage. Another show was found to be offensive to doctors. Then, a Press TV presenter fled Iran after posting a recording of a conversation with her manager in which she demands an end to his alleged sexual harassment.

Few people succeed in taking on the IRGC head on, but Sarafraz might have felt safe in doing so because of his background and the fact that he had an IRGC insider as his chief of staff. This seems, however, to have been a miscalculation. A source at IRIB told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the row over Mirgholikhan was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Even Mojtaba [the influential son of Ayatollah Khamenei] tried to mediate,” the insider said. “He [Sarafraz] tried distancing himself ever more from [moderate President Hassan] Rouhani. But everybody knew he had to go.”

Abdolali Asgari, who had headed the broadcaster’s technical department until his dismissal by Sarafraz, was appointed the new IRIB chief May 11. Asgari is known to be close to the IRGC, and with much of the media focused on highlighting his technical background, it is seldom noted that he was the founder of a retail conglomerate known to be funded by outfits affiliated with the security services. Moreover, Asgari has penned the publications “End of the American Age,” “The Death of the West,” “Smiles and Swords in Iran-US Relations” and “Cultural Cold War.”

Rather than what he is, the most important thing about Asgari may be what he isn’t. A bureaucrat not known for being strong-willed or harboring political ambitions, Asgari is the perfect choice for maintaining the status quo at IRIB, with its inflated budgets and few results. Most of all, the Glass House is not about to become more transparent.

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