Iran's Jon Stewart Serves Up Illegal Political Satire

The tragic comedy of the upcoming presidential election, as told by Kambiz Hosseini
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Iranian actor and satirist Kambiz Hosseini. (Courtesy of Kambiz Hosseini)

In the world of Iranian actor Kambiz Hosseini, almost everything about his country's presidential elections is side-splittingly funny.

"Becoming the president of Iran is like making a James Bond movie," Hosseini said in a recent CBCRadio program. "The characters stay the same, but they just keep changing the actors." He goes on to single out each one of the eight men selected last month by Iran's Guardian Council to contend for the presidency, leaving no one unblemished.

Hosseini's scathing and hysterical news podcast is an essential part of the weekly media diet of Iran's middle class. Produced by the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and incorporating sound bites from the week's headlines and commentary from Hosseini, the show channels the pathos of a generation desperate to intervene in a meaningful way in Iran's political charades.

"What the people want is pretty universal. They want a good economy, peace with the world, the sanctions to be lifted. They want to be part of the international community."

Gaining access to Hosseini's show can be a complicated affair for Iranians. In Iran's capital, Tehran, years of Internet censorship and a crackdown on independent media that intensified after the 2009 Green Movement have transformed the way Iranians consume media. In a thriving city of 12 million, unfettered access to the Internet and satellite television channels has long been out of reach. Yet with less than a week before the nation goes to the polls to elect a new president, the appetite for independent political commentary in Iran is perhaps at its highest point in the last four years, only to be met with increased government censorship of websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Google.

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It's perhaps difficult for web and media savvy Americans to imagine what its like to consume news in Iran.

"People are sick and tired of the state-run agencies with anchors who sit in front of them and deliver news with this dry structure," Hosseini says. Full of energy and always talking at lightening speed on his weekly podcast, the Hosseini that sits before me at a Starbucks in lower Manhattan is more contemplative. Nicknames and political debauchery aside, the longer arch of Hosseini's career reflects someone genuinely interested in how acting and journalism can play out in the political arena.

The Iranian diaspora in the United States -- of which Hosseini is a part -- has been growing steadily since 1979, all the while becoming a more significant pressure point on the regime from the outside. As the popularity of Five in the Afternoon demonstrates, the barriers that once separated Iranians from the international community are coming down. A survey of more than 2,000 Iranians conducted last fall showed that Iran's citizens are increasingly active on social media sites, with 58 percent reporting using Facebook, 37 percent Google+, and 12 percent Twitter.

These numbers are important because, as Hadi Ghaemi of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran explains, "the internet is the most prominent medium for communication and expression. In Iran, the Internet is the lifeline for people to interact with each other and the outside world."

The Campaign has monitored the disturbing evolution of Internet censorship in recent months as the presidential campaigns heat up. Two weeks ago, sources in Tehran reported Internet slowdowns happening several times a day. State-run and semi-official news agencies are given preferential treatment over autonomous news sources, creating a dearth of independent voices in the media and adding to the sense of isolation and dejection among Iran's rising generation. These are issues that in large part have been overlooked in the American coverage of the presidential race, which tends to focus instead on foreign policy topics that strike closer to home -- chief among them, the prospect for progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The steady drumbeat surrounding the campaign's frontrunner, Saeed Jalili, offers little hope for a significant policy shift in Iran's negotiating strategy. Jalili, the country's current top nuclear negotiator, came under fierce attack in the last of three presidential debates last Friday. Ali Akbar Velayati, another contender and one of Ayatollah Khamenei's top picks for the office, singled Jalili out for his failure to produce any sign of progress on the nuclear issue after 18 months of talks.

The splits that emerged on Friday were noteworthy, suggesting that there is room for debate even among the close circle of hardliners and conservatives selected by the Guardian Council. But despite their differing policy platforms, these men are all still hardly representative of Iranian public opinion.

"What's missing from U.S. coverage of Iran's elections is the people," says Hosseini. "And what the people want is pretty universal. They want a good economy, peace with the world, the sanctions to be lifted. They want to be part of the international community."

A combination of depression, anger, and inspiration drove Hosseini into the business of political satire.

But the "electronic curtain" -- as it has come to be called -- that the regime has pulled over its citizens pushes against the very desires nearest to their hearts. The only way to access shows created overseas such as Hosseini's is to use illegal proxies, which make it appear as if a computer is located outside the country. Even this widely used technology has come under attack recently. In March, the government began shutting down VPN clients across Iran, making it harder for ordinary Iranians to access the outside world through the Internet.

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Abigail Nehring is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Globalist, and Brooklyn Magazine.

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