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Iran: New Ban On Western Music Sounds Like Same Old Tune

A black market in Western music CDs already thrives in Iran (epa) Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ordered the state broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), not to play "Western and decadent music." Instead, it must promote "fine" Iranian music and revolutionary-era tunes. The ban on Western music is contained in a resolution issued by the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council -- headed by Ahmadinejad -- that calls for a change in IRIB programs. IRIB has been given six months to "review the current programming and to adjust to the new directives." But Iranians say there appears to be little new in the ban, that Western music has always been taboo in Iran.

Prague, 20 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In its resolution, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council said the "promotion of decadent and Western music should be avoided and the stress should be put on authorized, artistic, classical, and fine Iranian music."

In recent years, Iranian state TV and radio have broadcast instrumental-only versions of Western pop songs, as well as techno and house rhythms. Classical Western music can also be heard on Iran’s state broadcasts.

Does the new edict mean the authorities are going to crack down even harder on such music? No one seems to know.

Pejman Akbarzadeh, a young musician in Tehran and a member of Artists Without Borders, told RFE/RL that it is not clear what type of Western music will be banned from state broadcasting.

"In my opinion, this isn’t anything new. It has always been agreed that there shouldn’t be any Western music." -- Iranian musician

"This ruling that has been issued now reminds me of another ruling that was issued in the early days of the revolution, saying that some music pieces that do not respect some [Islamic principles] are banned. The new ruling is also not clear, like that one was. Therefore, everybody is confused about what kind of music will be banned," Akbarzadeh said.

Sohrab Mehrabi, the lead singer and guitarist of 127, an alternative-rock band in Iran, also expressed confusion about the new ruling. "In my opinion, this isn’t anything new. It has always been agreed that there shouldn’t be any Western music," he said. "I don’t know why [there is a new ban]. If this issue would be expressed more clearly, it would be better for everyone."

The Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council has said more effort should be made to produce and broadcast "relaxing themes and the memorable music from the revolution."

In the past, Akbarzadeh said, watered-down Western tunes have been used in state broadcasts as background music or as theme songs. "Music from different genres is [usually] used as a filler. You can sometimes hear classical music on our TV. You can hear lighter pieces. Sometimes you can even hear folk music from Western countries," he said. "But Western music with singing and lyrics is never aired on Iranian TV."

Most forms of Western music were banned in Iran following the establishment of the Islamic Republic. But such restrictions eased somewhat during the two terms of President Mohammad Khatami. Many young Iranians enjoy access to Western music through satellite television and a black market in music CDs, a trend that is unlikely to be affected by the new resolution.

Ahmadinejad, Khatami’s successor, has stressed the need to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He has also called for the promotion of Koranic values. In November, he was quoted by Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, as saying that "all political, economic, and cultural goals of the country need to directed towards materializing Islamic ideals."

Some observers see the new edict on Western music as part of a cultural clampdown.

In October, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council ordered a ban on Western movies that "degrade the true culture of Islamic societies" and feature propaganda for "the world oppressor," a term used by the Iranian establishment to designate the United States.

Last month, Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi said he would purge his ministry of officials who had failed to protect Islamic values. "Some maintain that culture should have no limits," he said in comments quoted by Iranian news agencies. "But we want cinema and theater that conform with our religious beliefs."

Pejman Akbarzadeh, the Tehran-based musician, said it is not clear yet how the new resolution will be implemented in practice. "Currently, there has been only talk about these issues, and in practice no decision has been made. So we can’t really comment now," he said. "We have to wait and see, as everybody is waiting, and they are in limbo. People want to see what will happen in practice, and then we can really say whether these policies will lead to [new] restrictions or whether cultural activities -- especially in the field of music -- will continue as before in Iran."

Asked whether Iranian rock bands are concerned, 127 lead singer Mohebi told RFE/RL that they already face many restrictions. "We are neither making money out of our music, nor are many people listening to our music [because of restrictions]," he said. "Even before Mr. Ahmadinejad, we were not able to distribute our work. We are waiting for the Culture Ministry to consider and review our works."

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.