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'Anti-Sunni' Satellite Channels Under Fire In Iran

An Iranian man on a motorcycle carries a satellite dish. (file photo)

Shi'ite satellite television networks in Iran have come under fire for alleged anti-Sunni programming.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said in an August 4 statement that a number of people working for local and foreign-based Shi'ite satellite channels were arrested during recent raids on "illegal offices" in the provinces of Qom, Tehran, Isfahan, and Khorasan.

The arrest warrants were issued by the country's judiciary, according to Iranian media reports.

The offices of an unspecified number of satellite channels were closed, according to the ministry, on the basis that they were involved in "clandestine and illegal" activities, "creating sectarian rifts," and "intensifying division in the Islamic world to damage the image of Shi'ism."

It was unclear where the foreign-based channels had been broadcasting from and what content they had been airing.

In May, Iran's Culture Ministry said the activities of such satellite channels were illegal and warned they could be prosecuted. Several of the channels are known to have the support of hard-line Shi'ite clerics in the holy city of Qom.

The move came after the leader of Hizballah -- the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group with close ties to Tehran -- urged Iranian authorities to clamp down channels broadcasting anti-Sunni programs in the Islamic republic. Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah singled out programs being aired with the support of senior clerics from Qom.

Mohammad Sadeq Salehimanesh, the governor of Qom Province, said in May that Nasrallah had sent a delegation to Qom.

Iran's Sunni minority makes up around 10 percent of the population, and includes Kurds, Baloch, Arabs, and Turkomans. For years, Iran has battled a small-scale Sunni insurgency against Baluch separatists in the eastern province of Sistan Balochistan along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The clamp down on satellite channels comes at a time when Shi'ite-Sunni tensions have spiked in the region, particularly in neighboring in Iraq and Syria, where Sunni extremists have declared themselves the head of a caliphate under the name "Islamic State."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.