The US government is planning to beam Azeri-language radio broadcasts into Iran, in a bid to influence opinion among the significant ethnic Azeri population there.
The new programming was proposed in the State Department budget that begins in October 2008. It must first be approved by Congress. If approved, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would begin broadcasting two hours a day of Azerbaijani-language programming in shortwave into Iran, said Jeff Trimble, Director of Programming at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The United States already has 24 hours a day of programming, via Radio Farda, in Farsi. Persians are a plurality in Iran and Farsi is the state language. But "research indicates that people prefer to get news and information in their native language," Trimble said. "Iran is an obvious case because the Azerbaijani population is so large, about a quarter of the population." Much of Iran's Azeri population lives in northern areas of the country.
RFE/RL already broadcasts Azeri-language content to listeners in Azerbaijan proper. Even though these broadcasts deal with events mainly in Azerbaijan, they have a significant following among Iranian Azeris, according to Trimble. "This new programming will emphasize issues concerning Iran and the ethnic Azeri, Azerbaijani-speaking population of Iran," he said.
According to surveys conducted by RFE/RL, about three-quarters of Azeris in Iran have access to shortwave radio and 12 percent listen to shortwave programming weekly figures that are higher than for the population in Iran as a whole, Trimble said. "That's a pretty high percentage. The potential target audience for this is pretty high."
Given the long-standing tension between the United States and Iran, some experts believe that Tehran is likely to interpret the launch of Azeri-language broadcasting as an American attempt to foment Azeri separatism. Azeri discontent with the policies carried out by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration has risen noticeably in recent years. In 2006, thousands of ethnic Azeris protested after an Iranian newspaper printed a cartoon featuring an Azerbaijani-speaking cockroach. (The cartoonist and the editor of the newspaper were arrested after the cartoon was published.)
Trimble denied that the intent of the new broadcasts would be to stir up ethnic strife. "The professional journalistic code of RFE/RL
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.