Is Iran's New Spanish Channel a Threat?

| Mar. 5, 2012 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Foreign Policy

A travel documentary shows off Bulgaria's tolerance of Islam with images of towering minarets, glowing mosques, and crowds of men bowing on prayer mats. A moderator chats with Latin American youth about Islamic educational methods. A program on Irán Hoy (Iran Today) flashes footage of the country's "defensive" missile tests and "peaceful" nuclear program. It's all aimed at a continent known for its raunchy, melodramatic programming and blasé coverage of current affairs.

Welcome to HispanTV. Officially unveiled on Jan. 31, the Tehran-based channel is the third to be launched by Iran's state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting wing, after the Arabic-language al-Alam and English-language Press TV. It is yet another example of Iran's cultural and economic outreach to Latin America and particularly to opponents of the United States in the region such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Castro brothers.

"A selfish and bullying minority has attempted to impose its will on the entire world," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared from Tehran during HispanTV's inaugural ceremony, and the new channel would "be a means for better ties between people and governments of Iran and Spanish-speaking nations." The Iranian president, who recently toured Latin America, ended his remarks on the launch with a resounding "Viva la paz!… Viva el pueblo! Viva América Latina!" ("Long live peace! Long live the people! Long live Latin America!")—phrases that would not sound out of place punctuating one of Chávez's marathon speeches.

One wonders, however, whether el pueblo is watching. While HispanTV is streamed live on its website, those keen on watching the channel on a television set will be flummoxed by the need for a satellite dish and modulator costing thousands of dollars. This, coupled with patchy Internet connectivity in Venezuela, makes HispanTV out of reach for most Venezuelans.

Even in Persepolis, an Iranian restaurant frequented by diplomats and Iranians in the high-end Caracas district of Las Mercedes, the huge television in the corner was turned to more popular Iranian programming on a busy Wednesday during lunchtime. There was little interest in this small oasis of Iranian culture for a homegrown channel aimed at Latin America, especially given the difficulty in accessing it. Few of the diners were familiar with HispanTV, let alone keen on watching it. At a mosque in the center of Caracas, worshippers were similarly uninterested. Perhaps in a nod to tensions between Iran and the West, neither diners nor worshippers were willing to be quoted.

What about Venezuelans themselves? Not one person was familiar with HispanTV's existence at one bustling cafe in Caracas. News of the channel's launch appeared in some Venezuelan newspapers, but there's been little follow-up since.

Beyond the logistical challenges in watching the channel and a lackluster program schedule (available for download as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet), there's another reason people may not be overly thrilled about HispanTV. The programming falls short not just of Western norms—something that's unlikely to bother Ahmadinejad—but also of more universal standards of fair reporting and quality.

News of Iran's recent advances in nuclear technology was delivered without any discussion of Washington's concerns about the weaponization of such technology or the sanctions on Tehran. As in Venezuela, where Chávez appears on state television for long periods, news segments aired Ahmadinejad's extended explanation of his decision to personally lower fuel rods into a nuclear reactor, with no criticism.

This uncritical approach applies to Tehran's allies as well. A report two weeks ago on Chávez's new round of cancer treatment failed to mention the chaos that could result from the Venezuelan leader's deteriorating health, just as the opposition has chosen a candidate to challenge Chávez in October.

News presenters, meanwhile, doled out criticism of Washington and Wall Street by Occupy Wall Street protesters even as the movement recedes from U.S. headlines, and they gave airtime to anti-capitalist demonstrations in places such as Athens and London.

All this isn't to say that HispanTV is entirely lacking in depth. The channel's 35 correspondents appear to be experienced journalists, not Iranians who have simply been thrown a Spanish-language textbook. Recently, HispanTV aired reports on the Greek debt crisis from Athens, a Middle East conference from Moscow, a deadly train crash from Buenos Aires, and efforts to reconstruct buildings destroyed by the Israeli military from Gaza. "What other Spanish-language channel has correspondents in Afghanistan, in Syria?" Mahmud Alizadeh, who heads up HispanTV's Spain operations, recently asked El País.

HispanTV also features films, documentaries, and various "series." During the day these are generally of poor quality. An old historical drama, Joseph, the Prophet, dubbed into Spanish resembles biblical epics such as In the Beginning.

In the evening, however, the channel comes into its own, ramping up quality just as Western channels do. One program follows a young Iranian man to England, where he is studying at London's Islamic School and searching for the "obvious" Muslim woman to marry. Another documentary describes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution—a history program resembling Joseph the Prophet but with less subtle political overtones. Cinema Against the Current, an offbeat movie review program, discusses films such as Reel Bad Arabs (a look at how Hollywood vilifies Arabs) and resembles any late-night British or U.S. equivalent, with trendy panelists backed by a stylish studio and graphics.

The leitmotif running throughout HispanTV's programming is one that highlights the threatening hegemony of the United States and Israel coupled with the suffering of the Arab world at their hands. Here are images of Palestinian women wailing over a copy of the Quran. There is George W. Bush, spewing swaggering, warmongering rhetoric.

Although the channel has been described as an effort to bridge cultural gaps between Iran and the Americas and complement Ahmadinejad's work in building ties with the region, the programming seems to preach to the converted: Iranians who have immigrated to the Spanish-speaking world. And, as the diners at Persepolis were all too aware, there is a wealth of better Iranian content for them to enjoy. "These channels are generally not successful because people are not stupid and they know perfectly well who is behind the channels," explains journalist Hugh Miles, who authored a book about Al Jazeera in 2005. "Everyone is wise to their reputation."

So what, then, is the real purpose of HispanTV? The channel, of course, is still maturing and could, for all we know, one day blossom into an Al Jazeera of sorts. But a more critical eye wonders whether HispanTV is nothing but a Washington-facing facade, covering up the fact that, in reality, the links between Iran and Latin America are not as strong as Tehran—and perhaps Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Cuba -- would like.

Tehran's links with Latin America are lubricated by oil, and the countries that Ahmadinejad visited during his trip to the region in January—oil exporters Ecuador and Venezuela and oil importers Cuba and Nicaragua—reflected that reality. These governments have something else in common: a vitriolic hatred of the United States and the injustice they believe it espouses, spurred on by their left-wing, revolutionary fervor.

Brazil—once seen as rather friendly toward Tehran—was notably absent from Ahmadinejad's itinerary, as were Argentina and Mexico. Any Iranian links to the region are weak without the friendship of Latin America's three economic and political powerhouses, as is an Iranian television channel that doesn't do much to bridge this gap except broadcast in the correct language (except, of course, in Portuguese-speaking Brazil). HispanTV has much work to do in building relations with the region and making Washington fret about creeping Iranian influence in the Americas. For now, HispanTV appears to be little more than a scarcely watched, awkwardly dubbed vessel for Iranian propaganda.