Can Iran’s new TV chief bring IRIB, Rouhani closer?

First published on Al-Monitor

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed a new chief for the country’s broadcaster — a choice that can be described as favorable to President Hassan Rouhani.

Mohammad Sarafraz, the new head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), is an insider who led the organization’s abroad operations since 1992 and founded the flagship Press TV in 2007.

The importance of IRIB can hardly be exaggerated. With an annual budget of approximately $900 million (some estimates put it at $1 billion) and more than 50,000 employees, it is one of the largest media organizations in the Middle East. It is the only legal broadcaster in Iran and runs dozens of national and local TV channels and radio stations. Under Sarafraz, it has boldly expanded on the international scene and now runs dedicated news channels in English, Arabic and Spanish while broadcasting in more than 30 languages, including Bosniak, Azerbaijani, Mandarin, Malay and Albanian.

The IRIB chief is a key establishment position and, together with the head of the judiciary and chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), among the very few direct appointees of the supreme leader. Under Ayatollah Khamenei, the organization has been kept close to the conservative and hard-line factions. It was a harsh critic of the Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and it has often collided with Rouhani since his election in 2013 — so much so that Rouhani took a public stance against IRIB last August and accused it of contradicting the constitution and giving a purposely negative coverage of his administration.

Sarafraz is also a staunch loyalist to the supreme leader but one who is quite different from Ayatollah Khamenei’s previous appointees. He is a conservative who has never had a “radical [hard-line] attitude,” Amir Mohebbian, a leading analyst, told Al-Monitor from Tehran. Mohebbian, who considers Sarafraz a “friend,” said he had a “calm and quiet personality” and “a vast knowledge of international affairs.”

In a way, Sarafraz is a similar figure to Rouhani himself: an establishment conservative who prioritizes a nonpartisan approach and emphasizes competency. He is “not after creating controversy, is not very political and more of a professional,” Mohebbian said.

Appointment of a professional insider like Sarafraz is good news for Rouhani, especially when we compare him to other leading candidates who were rumored for the position: Two were hard-line culture ministers under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and another was an ex-parliamentary speaker considered to be the dean of conservative cultural attitudes.

At the same time, Sarafraz has a loyalist resume that allows him certain liberties. His father, Abolfazl Sarafraz, was a cleric who founded a seminary in the holy city of Qom and studied directly under the Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He later was Ayatollah Khomeini’s representative in the national airline carrier. His brother, Javad, was chief of staff to Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, the general-secretary of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) who was killed in the bombing of the IRP headquarters in 1981. His other brother, Ali, was killed in the Iran-Iraq War in 1986. He is therefore a part of the “martyrs’ family,” as mentioned by Ayatollah Khamenei in his appointment edict. In many of Khamenei’s speeches, Sarafraz can be seen sitting in the front row, which is often a significant indicator of proximity to power. Ambassador Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, a leading nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad, is his brother-in-law.

Sarafraz himself also fought in the war and was even injured, a source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, as was attested by several Press TV employees who Al-Monitor spoke to. Sarafraz maintains a very low profile and never mentions this. Hard-line Tasnim News Agency welcomed his appointment, boasting of Sarafraz’s simple ways and avoidance of corruption. According to Tasnim, he lived in a rented house for a long time (“maybe even now”), usually goes without a chauffeur and drives a simple Peugeot 405.

This background gives Sarafraz certain liberties that he can use to professionalize IRIB and possibly make it into a more attractive option for audiences, more than 60% of whom now regularly watch proscribed foreign-based satellite channels.

A previous Press TV journalist who worked under Sarafraz for seven years told Al-Monitor that he was unique among the establishment managers because he cared about the quality of the programs and not the personal lives of employees. “He didn’t care if employees didn’t wear the perfect hijab, didn’t say their prayers or went partying,” he told us.

Another ex-employee, who used to serve under him in a senior position when he was based in Berlin, said that Sarafraz is an “intellectual” and not an apparatchik. Having received his doctorate in political science from Beirut’s Saint Joseph University (a private Catholic institution founded by the Jesuits), he speaks fluent English and Arabic. He wrote a history of the Taliban that was published in Arabic in Beirut in the past decade.

Will there be change?

Even though Sarafraz was probably the best candidate Rouhani could have wished for, it is not clear how much change he can actually bring to IRIB.

As the head of Press TV, his handling of the disputed 2009 presidential elections and the mass movement that followed it shows that his much-lauded “professionalism” has clear boundaries.

According to Trita Parsi’s book “A Single Roll of the Dice,” it was Sarafraz who called the Press TV studios a mere hour after the polls had closed and ordered them to “announce that Ahmadinejad is ahead in the elections with a significant margin” leading to the resignations of “several journalists.”

“Initially, we never used terms like ‘rioters’ or ‘seditionists’ to refer to the 2009 protesters. But it all changed soon,” a journalist told Al-Monitor.

Scandalously, Press TV aired an “interview” with Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, who had been arrested for covering the protests, in which Bahari was forced to read answers from a script. After his release, Bahari took legal action, and as a result, Britain’s broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, hit Press TV with a fine of 100,000 British pounds (around $157,000). Sarafraz was declared to be a “serious offender of human rights” by the European Union. To make things worse, an article posted on the Press TV website protesting Ofcom’s ruling quotes from “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a well-known anti-Semitic tract.

But Sarafraz’s inauguration speech shows that he is determined to bring a degree of change. He knows full well that IRIB is one of the most wasteful state institutions in the country. Despite receiving a license fee from millions of citizens and other massive revenue streams, it continues to lose millions of dollars every year. He promised to make the organization leaner and use “effective human resources” while outsourcing some productions to cut red tape. The new chief also promised more attention to audiences and to developing services that would let them watch programs on-demand.

How quickly and to what degree can Sarafraz bring change remains to be seen. On Nov. 9, he moved to the fourth floor of IRIB’s massive glass building in north Tehran. His first appointment, as chief of staff, was Mohammad Mehdi Taeb, brother of Hossein Taeb, the current intelligence chief of the IRGC who used to head the paramilitary Basij during its brutal suppression of the 2009 movement.

Sarafraz has also appointed two unnamed managers from the country’s cinema authority to IRIB, Tabnak reported. Since the cinema authority is generally more liberal than IRIB, these appointments can be indicative of some of his future policies.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article gave the IRIB’s budget as $37 million. Al-Monitor regrets the error.

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