Satellite TV scales the walls of Islam: Iranians tune in to the West

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IT WAS one of those anomalies that seemed to typify the contradictions of the Islamic republic: a few bars of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here as continuity music on Iran Radio's morning programme.

It could have been unintentional, or a deliberately subversive message by a dissident producer upset that the brother of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been dismissed as head of the broadcasting authority. In any case, Western music was not so long ago banned on radio.

The song's wistful appeal is one which the regime has been sending to Iranians who left the country during and after the Islamic revolution, while on the other hand making life so difficult that many are packing up and leaving again.

It was the liberalisation programme begun by Mr Rafsanjani after the end of the Iran- Iraq war in 1988 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini the following year which first attracted Iranian exiles back. They fell broadly into three categories.

Some have returned to try to recover assets seized by the new authorities. Many are prepared to fight their cases in court, but the courts have been invoking old statutes which penalise property owners who have obtained non-Iranian citizenship. This acts as a disincentive to the old professional, managerial and moneyed classes to return.

The second group of returnees are those who found the going too tough in the West, with the recession, and decided that whatever the drawbacks of a restrictive regime, they would do better in their native land.

A third, very small, group has come to try and make a go of business. Many of these, however, have been disillusioned by the bureaucracy and corruption which have hampered their enterprise. Others have found that galloping inflation - now running at between 20 and 60 per cent - has eroded their incomes.

The economic problems of the country stem largely from the unbridled spending spree which followed the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Some temporary relief has been found in the rescheduling of a third of Iran's debt, mainly short-term commercial debt. However, servicing the debt will still absorb up to pounds 3.3bn a year, when revenue from oil and non-oil exports is barely pounds 6bn a year. Western banks are reluctant to lend more to Iran. The biggest creditor is Germany, followed by Japan.

Mr Rafsanjani has all but abandoned many of the planks of his economic reform programme. Import controls have been reintroduced. The rial is no longer allowed to float - leading to a black market in dollars some 40 per cent higher than the posted price. The programme of lifting subsidies on basic commodities has been prolonged.

The constant reversals of policies have reduced confidence among the business community. For the man on the street, the main banes are inflation, falling living standards and unemployment. More than 40 per cent of the population of 60 million was born after the 1979 revolution, and have known no other system.

Some steps have been made to reduce the birth rate. Lower infant mortality, a stop to incentives to families of more than three children, and the unwillingness of the religious authorities to speak out against family planning have all been factors.

Opinions vary over how much economic hardship the population can bear. Some argue that the Shia faithful glory in suffering. Some of the more radical clergy are opposed to the material improvement of the people if that means compromising the ideological basis of the republic.

Mr Rafsanjani has presided over some relaxations of social restrictions. The merchant class of north Tehran know that what they do inside their homes is largely their affair. Many lock themselves behind their high walls and behave as though the Islamic revolution never took place.

The greatest social issue at present is whether or not satellite television receiving dishes should be allowed. The eventual decision on whether or not to tolerate satellite television, which many wealthier Iranians already have, will be seen as a test of Mr Rafsanjani's authority. If the majlis (parliament) approves their use, this will be taken as a victory for the President who, he has said in the past, approves of them. If the majlis bans them, the decision is likely to be unpopular, and that could turn to the President's advantage.

There are also those who think that the non-banning of satellite dishes - they are currently legal but discouraged by religious hard-liners - would finally spell the end of the Islamic republic's attempt to preserve the purity of the revolution by keeping out pernicious outside influences. That process has been gradual anyway. People can phone freely abroad, receive faxes, play videos and also travel without the restrictions that were imposed for most of the past 15 years. Access to the whole panoply of uncontrolled television viewing presented by satellite dishes would, however, represent a major leap in scale in the erosions of the walls protecting the Islamic republic from the outside world.

(Photograph omitted)