The Laughs Are Strictly Regulated, but Iran's Fledgling Satire Still Tries to Push the Limits

Music and satire disappeared from Iranian television when Ahmadinejad was president. Even during Rohani’s tenure many artists are paying the price for criticizing the government.

Rambod Javan, host of Nasim Television's ‘Khandevane’
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Music and satire disappeared from Iranian television during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s time as president, but even under current Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s administration many performers are suffering as the government attempts to appease critics of the country’s nuclear agreement.

“My name is Rambod Javan from Nasim Television and this is ‘Khandevane,’” the host of a popular Iranian television interview and satire show that has been on the air since June 2014 tells his studio audience, which is carefully chosen. The members of the audience are tested on how they laugh and smile and how they applaud. The audience is briefed. Each is invited for an interview and agrees to comply with instructions from the show’s director, applauding when needed, laughing, and even taking part in a smiling competition that is held on every episode of the show, in which viewers at home are invited to vote on who has the best smile.

Like all the country’s roughly 20 national television stations under the control of the Iranian broadcasting authority, Nasim Television is subject to strict oversight by the authority’s management – but it is trying to push the limits. Program staff, for example, tried to invite Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to come on air to congratulate him on achieving the Iranian nuclear accord with the world powers.

The request was denied, as expected, but other government officials actually did come on for interviews. Other Iranian celebrities, who find the show a rare platform for performing songs or talking about themselves, also appear on the program.

The show features more than satire and primed laughter. When the mayor of the city of Rasht wanted to cut down 37 trees to pave another lane on the city’s main street, the program became a forum for pointed criticism over the loss of ancient trees. In another instance, the show’s host brought a group of young people with disabilities to the studio and invited viewers to help them. The subsequent response was impressive. Many called in to offer assistance or to report that as a result of the program, they had set up non-profit groups to provide help to those with disabilities.

During Ahmadinejad’s tenure, laughter, music and satire disappeared from TV screens in the country. He also suspended performances of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, which was established in 1933. It’s hard to find music programs on Iranian television, and those wanting to listen to Western music turn to the Internet or foreign programming received via satellite dishes. Anyone wanting to see Iranians play modern music go to subversive shows performed in basements or private homes, far from the gaze of the morals police.

If under Ahmadinejad the ban on concerts was explained on ideological and religious grounds, now it is based on political grounds. Iran’s nuclear agreement with the world powers, the future expansion of business ties with Western companies, anticipation of the opening of a new economic era and elections for a new parliament – and a new council of experts, which will ultimately have to appoint a successor to the country’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – put both conservatives and radicals on the defensive.

Both sides fear that the new parliament will be less conservative than the current one, that Rohani will find stronger political support there and that, until the end of his term, he will attempt to enact cultural reform to address the expectations of reformists and liberals. Every show, concert, daring television program or conference on human rights is therefore seen as a political threat.

Last month, for example, a Tehran Symphony Orchestra concert in honor of the opening of an international wrestling competition at Azadi stadium was cancelled. The concert wasn’t directly banned, but 15 minutes before it was due to start, the conductor of the orchestra was asked to remove female members of the orchestra from the stage. The conductor, Ali Rahbari, refused and cancelled the concert.

Half an hour before, the government cancelled an appearance by Kayhan Kalhor, a master of the traditional stringed instrument the kamancheh who had been due to perform with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, considered the master of classical Persian music, has not been allowed to perform for more than six years.

These are just some of the 24 or so artists who are still banned from performing under Iran’s current president, Rohani. Most are accused of “committing offenses while preforming abroad” or sharing videos of their performances with foreign broadcast outlets. Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati has stated that there is no blacklist of artists who are barred from performing in public, but in response, singer Hossein Zaman published a blog in which he contended that he too has been the subject of a ban for more than 10 years. He demanded that Jannati disclose who ordered the minister to stop him from performing.

“I will deal with them myself if you are afraid,” Zaman wrote. But he, too, knows that in the competition between the conservatives and reformists, someone will have to pay the price. To halt the criticism of the nuclear agreement, Rohani will have to pay up in the field of human rights, and if performers continue to live in the shadows as a result, that’s apparently proper recompense in return for which Rouhani’s administration will manage to improve Iran’s economy.