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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Israel Radio Often Finds Best Friends Are Iranian

Joel Greenberg. The New York Times. 02/20/1998.

The young woman calling from Iran spoke very quietly into the telephone.

''Thank you for your very good program,'' she said to the answering machine of Israeli radio's Persian-language service. ''Your news is very reliable, because in our country the news is worthless. Thank you for the beautiful music you play. Please put on more.''

Another Iranian caller, who also kept his voice down, said: ''I shake your hands. Why do people come and plant bombs, cutting innocent people to shreds and killing Israelis? Why? Putting bombs in buses is really inhuman. Why do people do this? They get a green light from Arafat.''

Such expressions of sympathy from Iran, an implacable enemy of Israel, come as no surprise to Menashe Amir, director of the Voice of Israel's Persian section.

''The people of Iran are not the regime,'' he said, sipping tea at his desk, Persian style, a sugar cube in his mouth. An Iranian-born Jew who immigrated 38 years ago, Mr. Amir, 58, heads a small staff of Iranian-born Israelis who produce the broadcasts to the Islamic republic.

Despite Iran's hostility to Israel, the shortwave broadcasts are received across Iran, along with more than a dozen foreign stations like the BBC and the Voice of America.

For nearly 40 years, Israeli radio has been beaming broadcasts without interference to Iran, as well as more extensive programs in Arabic to neighboring Arab countries. The Israeli broadcasts are not jammed by these countries, apparently to avoid retaliatory blocking of their broadcasts to Israel.

Mr. Amir says Iranian press reports, traveling Iranians and foreign diplomats indicate that the Israeli station enjoys wide popularity. He says it has millions of listeners, and produces piles of mail to support his contention. The letters are sent to a post office box in Europe.

Listeners also contact the station through a phone number in the United States, and some of their remarks are later played on the air. The calls and letters arrive indirectly because there is no phone or mail service from Iran to Israel, although calls can be made from Israel to Iran.

The Israeli broadcasts -- which include detailed news about Iran from sources in the country and abroad as well as reports about Israel -- have an impact. Iranian papers routinely cite reports from the ''Zionist regime radio,'' and Iranian radio rebuts the Israeli radio's commentaries. Even the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has inveighed against the broadcasts.

Mr. Amir says his station is popular because it gives Iranians domestic news that goes unreported by the Government-controlled news media, like opposition speeches and information about corruption cases, in a longer news program than other foreign broadcasts.

The Israeli programs also carry foreign recordings of popular Persian music banned under the stern cultural codes of the Islamic Republic, as well as interviews with exiled Iranian intellectuals.

''We present a different Iran, which the younger generation born after the Islamic revolution isn't familiar with,'' Mr. Amir said, adding, ''We talk to the listeners informally, as brothers.''

Iranians sometimes contact the Israeli station to advertise for a prospective spouse or to pour out personal troubles. The station passes along responses to those seeking partners and airs other messages.

''Once I read out a letter from an Iranian woman who described how she had lost her fiance in the war with Iraq,'' Mr. Amir said, ''and I was so moved that I cried on the air. That caused quite a stir in Iran.''

Not all listeners like what they hear. Some call the Israeli station's answering machine to hurl abuse or to leave messages like ''Death to Israel!''

Once a week Mr. Amir delivers a commentary that seeks to counter the harsh anti-Israeli positions of the Iranian leadership.

In a recent broadcast, he even enlisted conciliatory remarks toward the West made by the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami. The coincidence of Christmas, Hannukah and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year shows links between the three monotheistic religions, Mr. Amir told his listeners.

The constant flow of listener responses has convinced him that ordinary Iranians are much less hostile to Israel than might be expected from the Government's position. He recalled a stream of sympathetic phone calls after Hamas suicide bombings in Israel, even as the attacks were officially being praised.

Clearly, the Israeli station provides an outlet for dissent.

''I believe in Islam, but not in the regime of the mullahs,'' said one caller.

But another asked, ''If the Iranian regime is compelled to stop its hostile policies toward Israel, will the Voice of Israel change its policy, and stop telling the truth about Iran?''

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