The Exercise of Soft Power – U.S. Self-Imaging in International Broadcasting to Iran

by Yasmin Djabarian (Author)
©2018 Thesis 278 Pages


While imagological works in the field of American Studies have traditionally focused on the construction of America by outsiders, this study takes a new approach by examining U.S. self-imaging efforts in the context of U.S. international broadcasting to Iran. The author traces the history of the Voice of America’s Persian Service and illustrates its conflict-prone organizational framework and modus operandi by considering legal documents, government reports, and personal interviews. As the inductive programming analysis and the case study of Simaye Amrica show, the Persian Service pursues a twofold image cultivation strategy by aiming to shape Iranian perceptions of the U.S. government in its news and political shows and perceptions of the American people in its arts and cultural programs.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. U.S. Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting to Iran
  • 2.1 Public Diplomacy Definitions and Organization
  • 2.2 U.S. Public Diplomacy after 9/11
  • 2.3 U.S. International Broadcasting – Organization and Legal Framework
  • 2.4 Voice of America’s Persian Service
  • 2.4.1 The Development of VOA Persian Service
  • 2.4.2 Internal Structures and Processes
  • 2.4.3 Institutional Issues of VOA Persian Service
  • 3. The United States’ Soft Power Approach in the War on Terror
  • 3.1 Nye’s Soft Power Theory
  • 3.2 The American Self-Image of Exceptionalism
  • 3.3 Values as a National Security Strategy
  • 3.3.1 The Soft Power Advantage
  • 3.3.2 The United States’ Motivation to Engage in a War of Ideas
  • 3.3.3 The Universality of American Values
  • 3.3.4 The Target Audience of the U.S. Value-Centered Soft Power Approach
  • 3.4 Global Perceptions of the United States and Implications for VOA Persian Service Programming
  • 3.5 Analytical Framework
  • 3.5.1 U.S. Self-Framing in VOA Persian Service Programming
  • 3.5.2 Analytical Categories
  • 3.5.3 Guiding Hypotheses
  • 4. A Programming Analysis of VOA Persian Service
  • 4.1 The Sample
  • 4.2 The Portrayal of the United States and U.S. Foreign Policy in VOA Persian Service’s News and Political Shows
  • 4.3 The Portrayal of the United States in VOA Persian Service’s Arts and Cultural Shows
  • 4.4 A Case Study of Simaye Amrica
  • 4.4.1 Image Cultivation on the Structural Level
  • 4.4.2 Image Cultivation on the Content Level
  • 5. All Eyes on VOA Persian – Public Discourse on the Persian Service’s Exercise of Soft Power
  • 5.1 The Content Controversy
  • 5.2 Insiders’ Understanding of the Persian Service’s Purpose and Their Assessment of Its Performance
  • 5.3 Outsiders’ Understanding of the Persian Service’s Purpose and Their Assessment of Its Performance
  • 5.3.1 Congress
  • 5.3.2 Other Outsiders
  • 6. Conclusion
  • 6.1 VOA Persian’s Self-Imaging Efforts – Conditions and Possibilities
  • 6.2 The Projected U.S. Self-Image
  • 6.3 Outlook
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Sources Analyzed
  • Works Consulted
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables

1. Introduction

Abstract: Given Iran’s priority for U.S. foreign policy and the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, VOA Persian represents the single most important language service at VOA, allowing the U.S. government to directly reach Iranians and to attempt to cultivate their image of the United States through its programming.

The Significance of VOA Persian Service for U.S. Foreign Policy

In Sedaye Americast. Three words play at the end of each show broadcast by the Persian Service of the U.S. government-funded network Voice of America (VOA) and serve as a constant reminder of the programming’s sponsor: In Sedaye Americast. This is the Voice of America.

While governments often use broadcasts to reach out to foreign audiences in a direct and unfiltered manner,1 the U.S. international broadcasting service to Iran is special. The Persian branch of Voice of America is in fact the only official voice of America in Iran or, differently put, “the only platform from which the U.S. Government can reach an Iranian audience with unbiased news and information about U.S. foreign policy and American life” (OIG 2009, 1).

Given the lack of formal diplomatic relations after the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979–1981), the two countries have since communicated mainly via backchannels or symbolic speeches.2 As the deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program, Suzanne Maloney, notes “American diplomacy ha[s]‌ demonstrated a persistent reliance on public discourse and official remarks, formal statements read at a spokesperson’s podium, congressional ←15 | 16→testimony, public appearances by senior officials, and engagement with the media.”3

In addition to “this strange pattern of noncommunication,”4 the complex relations between Washington and Tehran are the result of their shared past of deep traumas,5 provocative actions, mutual demonization,6 and missed opportunities7 as well as Iran’s enduring priority status for U.S. foreign policy. As an unclassified State Department cable from 2006 declares,

Effectively addressing the Iran challenge ranks as one of the highest foreign policy priorities for our Government over the next decade. The Secretary [Condoleeza Rice] has therefore approved a plan with her overall objectives for Transformational Diplomacy to increase our State capabilities to focus on Iranian issues and to increase our outreach to the Iranian people, promote freedom and democracy in Iran. (State8 2006, n.pag.)

For years, the prospect of a nuclear Iran has been a key challenge for the United States. However, as U.S. concerns with Iran by far transcend the fear of an atomic bomb, the historic deal of July 2015 between the P5+19 and Iran, i.e. their agreement upon a temporary halting of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, has not led to a general relaxation of tensions. Iran has kept its prominent position on the U.S. foreign policy agenda because of its anti-American rhetoric, ←16 | 17→human rights violations, destabilizing efforts in the Middle East, and aggression toward Israel – the United States’ pivotal ally in the region.10

As U.S. international broadcasting, the “most visible and important”11 instrument of public diplomacy,12 has historically targeted the publics of countries posing the most imminent threats to U.S. interests and national security, the status of VOA Persian Service as VOA’s “crown jewel” (Marashi 2016; A1 2012)13 follows an old rationale. Regarding its structure, it stands out as the only full-fledged network at VOA and, therefore, the only language service constituting its own division.14

←17 | 18→

Its significance is also reflected in quantifiable terms with regards to its budget and size. The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy’s (ACPD) 2016 annual report lists the Persian Service as the VOA language service with the largest financial resources, noting a budget of $19.1 million including program delivery for Fiscal Year 2015 (30). As of April 2016, VOA Persian Service has a staff of “about 137 personnel” according to its executive editor, Mohammad Manzarpour. In comparison, the service was staffed by only 30 employees in 2007 (cf. OIG 2009, 5).

The U.S. Soft Power Offensive in the “War of Ideas”

The rapid expansion and prioritization of VOA Persian Service serves as a prime example of the United States’ post-9/11 commitment to winning the “war of ideas” by actively spreading the American narrative. Framed as a “battle for hearts and minds” in the Middle East and constituting “one of the most intensive and expensive campaign [sic] in U.S. history,”15 this endeavor suggests the existence of at least three underlying assumptions about the power of perception.

First, the attempt to cultivate a positive U.S. image among Middle Easterners implies an acknowledgment of the role of “the pictures in people’s heads”16 as catalysts for action – a causality that Walter Lippmann had already pointed out in his seminal 1922 work Public Opinion.17 In other words, influencing the images and preferences of others is seen as a means to ultimately control their actions.

Secondly, the engaging of a foreign country’s citizens indicates a belief in their significance for advancing U.S. national interests by supporting bilateral decisions or exerting pressure on their governments. As Philip Seib, distinguished professor at University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, notes with regard to the vital function of global publics, “The stakes are enormous. Hostile publics constrain relationships even with friendly governments, making it difficult to achieve policy goals ranging from trade pacts to defense alliances.”18

←18 | 19→

In addition, thirdly, the government’s attempt to actively shape global perceptions, particularly in regions of critical importance to U.S. foreign policy such as Iran, demonstrates its perceived need to define itself amidst a multitude of competing and often unfavorable narratives.

Considering its use of mass media, international broadcasting displays an unparalleled potential to reach foreign publics and shape their perceptions. It is, therefore, a key instrument for wielding soft power – a concept that has gained widespread attention among policymakers and scholars in the post-9/11 context that has been characterized by a heightened awareness for the severe domestic consequences of antagonistic public opinion abroad. According to the founder of soft power theory, Joseph Nye, soft power “rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others”19 through attraction and agenda setting.20 A country’s success in producing and wielding soft power depends on three intangible resources – culture, values, and foreign policy.21 More precisely, it relies on the attractiveness of its culture, the appeal and authenticity of its values – which therefore have to be universal and reflected by the country’s actions – and the legitimacy of its foreign policy.22 Nye illustrates the mechanism of soft power, asserting, “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”23 Soft power thus functions as a counterpart to hard power, which relies on a “carrot-and-stick” approach, aiming to achieve desired outcomes by inducement and coercion, e.g., payments and military force.24

The Aim of the Study

Considering Iran’s critical role for U.S. foreign policy and the significance of international broadcasting for the United States’ soft power campaign for winning hearts and minds in Iran, I aim to analyze VOA Persian Service’s programming in terms of the underlying American self-image. Based on Nye’s soft power theory, I will focus on the programs’ portrayal of American culture, values, and foreign policy. By analyzing both the selection and presentation of U.S.-related ←19 | 20→topics, I will be able to draw conclusions on U.S. self-perception of its soft power assets, i.e. its self-assessment of the most attractive and persuasive American facets.

Although VOA Persian Service broadcasts to a country of critical importance to U.S. interest and national security, and although VOA Persian has both internally and externally been recognized as VOA’s most significant language service, there have been no comprehensive analyses on its programming up to this point. With my dissertation, I therefore not only aim to add to the growing field of research into U.S. public diplomacy toward Iran but, first and foremost, to contribute to filling an academic void.

VOA Persian Service

Given the severe lack of media freedom in Iran,25 international broadcasting services serve a vital function in Iran by offering an alternative to domestic state-controlled media. Despite the multitude of channels that can be received via satellite signal, U.S. international broadcasters reportedly play a significant role. There are two U.S. government-funded Persian-language broadcasting services that produce programming for an Iranian audience – VOA Persian Service26 and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Radio Farda. Although both services are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent agency within the executive branch, they carry out two distinct missions stemming from their different organizational structures. As Radio Farda belongs to RFE/RL, a corporation that operates under a grant by Congress, it functions as a surrogate broadcaster. Thus, its task is “to inform foreign populations in place of an indigenous free media in countries and regions that do not possess it or where some sort of media repression is present.”27 Given its surrogate mission and presumably low potential to function as a projection surface for the American self-image, Radio Farda and its programming will not be focused on in this study.

←20 | 21→

In contrast to Radio Farda, the federal broadcaster VOA Persian Service is required to set a U.S. focus by the legally binding VOA Charter. It establishes a twofold mission for VOA: On the one hand, VOA is supposed to carry out a journalistic function and broadcast objective and accurate news; on the other hand, it is instructed to serve as an advocacy tool that represents U.S. society and institutions as well as “responsible discussion and opinion” on U.S. policies. In addition, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 states that the programming needs to comply with the country’s “broad foreign policy objectives” (Sec. 303). This contradictory assignment and the broadcaster’s awkward position within the U.S. government force a contradictory dual role upon VOA Persian Service – to be both a media outlet obliged to objectivity and a foreign policy instrument at the same time. Although some (former) practitioners disagree,28 this hybrid status is highly problematic and bears considerable potential for conflict.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
Voice of America public diplomacy imagology image cultivation international relations self-imaging
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 278 S. 9 b/w ill., 2 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Yasmin Djabarian (Author)

Yasmin Djabarian studied American Studies and Communication at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and American University in Washington. As a doctoral candidate, she spent two semesters at Georgia State University in Atlanta and received a three-year scholarship from the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. She completed her PhD at JGU Mainz in 2017.


Title: The Exercise of Soft Power – U.S. Self-Imaging in International Broadcasting to Iran
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279 pages