Iran media plans stir talk of elite force at helm

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2009 6:38 AM

The portfolio of Iran's Revolutionary Guard keeps on growing. Its troops watch over nuclear facilities, its rocket scientists enlarge Iran's missile arsenal and its engineers have taken on a rail line as their latest big-ticket project. Could media mogul be next?

Sometime early next year, a new voice is expected to join Iran's state-sanctioned media blitz: a full-service news agency with video, photos and print.

The arrival of another government-backed news outlet is not much of a surprise. It fits into Iran's two-pronged media strategy: controlling its message with a constant flow of statements, trial balloons and news items while trying to muzzle those who disagree, including new plans to now police the Internet for opposition sites.

What's being closely watched is how much control could be taken by the Revolutionary Guard _ already the most powerful single institution in the country.

"The war of ideas will be intensified," said Ehsan Ahrari, an analyst on regional affairs at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

A brief announcement last month on plans for the news operation, called Atlas, gave no hint of who will be in charge. But there's growing speculation among analysts that it could mark a breakout moment for the Revolutionary Guard after years of apparent behind-the-scenes influence over some of Iran's main news outlets.

Such a move would widen the Guard's sway over Iran's most strategic affairs _ including its international media spin _ and further suggest that the ruling clerics are ceding more authority to the Guard during a time of unprecedented internal crisis.

It also would give the Guard a powerful tool to expand the kind of bargaining-by-media used recently by Iran to float proposals and issue statements in wrangling with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.

A possible media wing directly under the Revolutionary Guard would not be a stretch.

The semiofficial Fars news agency and the conservative newspaper Javan, or Young, are considered closely aligned with the Guard. But all the major state-backed news outlets rarely stray from the views of the Guard's commanders and hard-line loyalists.

No specific launch date has been announced for Atlas, which officials have said will carry news in Farsi, English and Arabic. Some reports have speculated its debut could come in March, which marks the Iranian new year. Few other details have been revealed, and authorities did not respond to requests by The Associated Press for interviews with officials involved in Atlas.

The news comes as Iran intensifies its clampdown on what's left of opposition sites on the Web.

On Saturday, Iranian media reported the creation of an Internet monitoring unit to fight "insults and the spreading of lies" _ terms widely used by the judiciary to describe opposition activities after the disputed presidential election in June.

Iranian authorities have closed several pro-reform newspapers and dozens of Web sites and blogs since the outrage over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election. One of his challengers, Mahdi Karroubi, described the silencing of dissent as worse than the measures imposed by the former Western-back shah before he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

At the same time, Iran has opened an information offensive. Its state-backed news agencies and broadcasters _ including English-language Press TV and Al-Alam in Arabic _ have churned out a blitz of policy statements, negotiating points and news breaks as the main soapboxes for Iran's public diplomacy.

At a meeting of Asia-Pacific news agencies in Tehran on Sunday, Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini did not specifically mention the plans for Atlas. But he denounced the influence of the "hegemonic powers" through international media organizations.

"There is nothing unusual about the Revolutionary Guard moving openly into the media world," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an expert in Iranian affairs at Syracuse University. "They have been waging this war for years by going after Web sites and reformist media. It just shows they are getting more savvy about the utility of media _ both old and new media."

The Revolutionary Guard and its network of paramilitary volunteers led the crackdowns against rioters and demonstrations in the aftermath of the election.

But in July, the chief of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said his forces must be ready to shift tactics to confront the "soft threat" from opposition Web sites and other dissenters perceived as undermining the Islamic system.

There is little in Iran that is not already under the influence of the Guard, which operates as combination of fighting force, spy agency and deep-pocket CEO for the ruling establishment.

Its military divisions _ which operate independently from the regular armed forces _ are in command of every vital installation, including uranium enrichment facilities and oil fields. Volunteer militiamen, known as Basiji, are available as on-demand muscle against protesters and serve as nationwide watchdogs for the system.

An array of trusts, holding companies and government contracts gives the 120,000-strong Guard a role in about a third of Iran's economy by some estimates.

In September, a consortium linked to the Revolutionary Guard, Etemad-e-Mobin, bought a 50 percent stake in the country's newly privatized telecommunications company in a deal valued at $7.8 billion. Last week, the Guard's engineering wing was awarded a $2.5 billion contract for a rail link.

A possible media outlet is part of a two-way arrangement, said researcher Ahrari.

The Islamic leaders gets unwavering loyalty from the Revolutionary Guard. In turn, the clerics allow the Guard to expand its power in new directions.

"It is a symbiotic relationship pure and simple," he said.