Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 26
By Farhad Daneshvar - Trend:
Celebrating a national festival on the occasion of Winter Solstice, millions of Iranian soccer fans alongside with President Hassan Rouhani's followers sat eagerly before TV screens, waiting for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to appear on a popular soccer program to speak about sports diplomacy.
However the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) left the fans frustrated, as Adel Ferdosipour, the program's host and producer, appeared on TV announcing that the interview will not be aired due to the objection from IRIB senior managers.
Apparently, the recent decision by the IRIB to stop airing Zarif's interview regarding sports diplomacy is considered by many as a defeat for Iranian moderates and reformists ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections.
While Iranians are getting ready to elect both law makers for parliament and clerics for the Assembly of Experts on the same day on 26 February, the IRIB's recent decision to cancel Zarif's interview conveys a coded message to moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters.
The upcoming elections are of high importance for both conservatives and reformists as President Rouhani's administration hopes that the results of the election will reinforce the reformist and moderate momentum in the currently conservative-populated parliament and the assembly.
The popular soccer program namely "Navad" (equivalent for ninety in Persian, referring to 90 minutes soccer match) which is broadcast every week on Mondays, is a rare soccer show in Iran which has managed to draw the attention of millions of audiences over that past 15 years.
After cancelling the interview at the very last minute, Iran's reformist outlets and figures accused the IRIB of behaving in favor of hard-liners and conservatives, ahead of the elections.
Reformists argued why IRIB cancelled Zarif's interview, while the distinguished conservative figure Gholamali Haddad-e Adel who will run as a candidate for the parliamentary election, appeared as a guest on the same TV channel just hours before "Navad" was aired.
In an interview with the government's official IRNA news agency, Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Iranian political commentator, slammed IRIB, saying the broadcaster which is expected to perform as a public organization and keep impartial approach towards political developments, shows open bias for a certain group of hard-liners.
He added that IRIB's actions proved that the organization does not serve the 80-million population of Iran, but rather the 4-million following of Saeed Jalili, President Hassan Rouhani's hard-line rival in 2013 election.
While some sources suggest that the IRIB head, Mohammad Sarafraz, personally opposed the interview and decided to censor it, the foreign ministry's spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari criticized the decision and said the IRIB should be held accountable, as it was the IRIB that insisted on the interview in the first place a while a go.
Responding to the foreign ministry's criticism, the public relations department of the IRIB released a statement saying the program is a sports show and the program's format does not fit to conduct an interview with a political figure.
The statement further added that IRIB did not formally ask for the interview and the producer personally conducted that without the knowledge of IRIB.
Although Zarif sent a message to Adel Ferdosipour urging him to prevent any conflict with IRIB officials, several social media users called on the host to stop airing the show on the IRIB channel to protest against the decision. Some other users suggested that the IRIB heads plan to fire Ferdosipour.
Meanwhile, many reformists believe that the main reason that triggered the cancelling of the interview was an article on hard-line daily Vatan-e Emruz's issue which harshly criticized the country's dire situation and accused the host of the soccer program of politicizing the show by inviting Zarif.
Hard-liners appear nervous as the lifting of international sanctions is on the horizon, following the overwhelming success of the Rouhani's team in reaching a milestone nuclear deal with the world powers in July, a step towards easing Iranians' economic difficulties.
Improving the economic situation of the nation will definitely encourage Iranian voters to cast ballots in favor of moderates and reformists in February 2016.
Over the past years hard-liners have used parliament as a tool to control presidents; therefore, within the next few months prior to the election, they will not hesitate to make any efforts to secure more seats in the parliament.
Farhad Daneshvar is Trend Agency's staff journalist, follow him on Twitter: @farhad_danesh