Iran/culture: So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star

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¶1. (SBU) Summary: An Iranian rock band described to us on
December 8-9 Tehran’s “small but crazy” underground club
scene, where drugs are cheap and easy to find, creative
expression is at its most free, and participants are among
Iran’s most tech-savvy citizens. They said the regime’s
fierce post-election political clamp-down has not impacted
the underground music scene, as the regime remains too
preoccupied with political protests to go after cultural
targets like rock music. The band members, though not active
with the Green Movement, dismiss the regime as out of touch
and certain to fall, though they also told us that a majority
of Iranians remain “stuck” in a conservative, traditional,
inward-looking worldview. As a result they assess that
political change will only come slowly. Comment: These
musicians — astute, well-informed, and resourceful
20-somethings — offered up an insightful glimpse into a
vibrant but mostly hidden sub-culture in Iran. Their views
reinforced the impression that Iranian society spans a far
broader and more complex spectrum than many outside observers
realize, and underscored the possibility that the regime —
though radicalizing — remains calculating and sensible
enough not to pick unnecessary fights on social issues, at
least while it is engaged so desperately in trying to counter
more immediate political threats. End comment.

The Ayatollahs of Rock and Rolla
—————————–

¶2. SBU) ConGen Istanbul’s NEA Iran Watcher and other
colleagues met December 8-9, 2009 in Istanbul with an Iranian
“underground” alternative rock band (please protect) called
the “Yellow Dogs,” after they applied to the Consulate for
visas to perform a concert tour in the United States. The
four band members, who enjoy a growing local and internet
following, shared their perspective about life as rock
musicians in an Iran beset by growing pressure on political
oppositionists and widening fractures within Iranian society.

What can a poor boy do but sing for a rock and roll band?
——————————————— ——-

¶3. (SBU) The four musicians, in their early twenties, were
first inspired by rock music that they heard as pre-teens
during the more socially tolerant Khatami presidency. They
said that rock music, despite its English-language lyrics,
spoke to them more viscerally about conditions they faced in
Iran than traditional Persian music did. With the support of
their (well-educated, professional) parents, they decided to
forego more traditional Iranian academic pursuits like
engineering to pursue music full-time. The self-taught
musicians began performing in high-school, quickly
discovering Tehran’s “small but crazy” underground music
scene, a scene that one band member insisted grew
significantly in size and creativity after Ahmadinejad’s 2005
election. They estimated that several thousand Tehran youths
are die-hard alternative- and hard-rock fans who regularly
risk fines and detention to attend underground concerts and
clubs, and that there are similar followings in Esfahan,
Shiraz, and Tabriz.

Comfortably numb
————

¶4. (SBU) The band members acknowledged that many
participants in the underground scene regularly use illegal
drugs (but denied any use themselves). They said drugs such
as heroin and opium are easy to find and inexpensive, but are
being eclipsed in popularity by amphetamines typically
produced in local home-labs. They acknowledged that despite
the regime’s increasing radicalization in most other aspects
of politics and social policy, the GoI continues to follow a
progressive approach to treating drug use and abuse, for
example by referring users to treatment clinics and
medication rather than jail sentences.

Almost cut my hair
—————-

¶5. (SBU) Though their music is not overtly political or
oppositionist the Yellow Dogs described the risks of playing
any kind of rock and roll in Iran, recounting several
occasions in 2007-8 when police raided closed-door concerts
they were holding (typically in sound-proofed basements or
warehouses in isolated neighborhoods). One raid led to the
detention of one band member under official charges of “Satan
worship”. A combination of bribes and parental pleading got
him released after two weeks in detention. All the band
members recounted run-ins with police and Basijis over “style
and clothing immoralities” including one band member’s
afro-style hair, which the police forced him to cut off by

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seizing his driver’s license until he did so. (He did, but
grew it back again.)

¶6. (SBU) One band-member described the underground scene as a
community that offers “the most free expression” in Iran,
where all political, cultural, and religious views are
tolerated, and where there is a lively exchange not only of
music, but art, books, photos, and other forms of artistic
expression. “Even Ahmadinajed’s people can come listen to
our music,” one told us, though he admitted few do. He added
that most of his peers spend their days (when not working or
playing music) just like western youth do, playing video
games on Macintosh computers and Xbox game platforms, buying
clothes from the Gap or Benetton, watching online TV (“Lost”
and Oprah are current favorites with Iran’s youth), and
blogging. They told us with bemusement that they regularly
play “Guitar Hero” online and beat players from the US or
Europe. When they tell their online competitors that they
are from Iran, the other players express shock that Iranians
are allowed to use the internet — and that they are so good
at video games.

¶7. (SBU) The band members told us the social crackdowns on
that community ebb and flow depending on whether the regime
is feeling self-confident or vulnerable, as well as the
degree to which the regime thinks the targeted community will
comply or resist. One band member described the police as
being more selective now about who they detain. Currently,
he said, the regime is totally focused on trying to squash
election-related protests. As one musician speculated,
either the regime does not have the time to go after
non-protesting young Iranians for crimes as mundane as
clothing violations or loud music, or it has made a conscious
decision not to do so, in order not to make more enemies than
necessary among Iran’s youth.

Nowhere Man
———–

¶8. (SBU) The musicians described Iranian society as two main
communities that are worlds apart in values and orientation.
One side is made up of urban dwellers who tend to be
well-educated, well-versed not only in Persian poetry and
classics but literary and artistic works from other cultures,
have some informed knowledge of the outside world through
television and personal travel, and want Iran to be more
integrated into that world. On the other side is perhaps a
majority of Iranians who are deeply religious and
conservative, predominantly rural, not educated beyond
high-school, tend to have read little beyond the Koran and
local newspapers, and are unaware of global developments or
modern technologies. “Many of them have never left Iran or
even their own province; they never used a computer, never
watched a foreign film, and never heard of the Beatles.”

¶9. (SBU) This traditional community, because its worldview is
so limited, is an easy target for the regime’s anti-western,
adversarial, black-and-white rhetoric. The band members
acknowledged that most of these voters probably voted for
Ahmadinejad, and agreed that even though Mousavi probably won
the elections Ahmadinejad retains great popularity with this
group. Moreover, they cautioned, if any foreign country ever
attacks Iran the entire conservative community will rally
behind the regime, and would probably be joined by a
significant part of the more urban, westernized Iranian
community too.

There’s Something Happening Here
——————————

¶10. (SBU) Three of the four band members said they have not
participated in the post-election protests though they
sympathize with the protesters, goals. The lead singer has
marched several times, explaining he could not stay home
while his parents marched. The band agrees that the size and
energy of the November 4 and December 7 protests confirm that
the Green Movement — though not cohesive and lacking in
strong leadership — has become a self-sustaining national
movement. “The government needs to find a way to deal with
these people in a peaceful way.” They predicted that in
coming years a new generation of leaders would emerge,
university students and 20-somethings who are already campus
and neighborhood leaders below the radar of national
attention or security force scrutiny.

Same as the Old Boss
——————-

¶11. (SBU) The band members described former PM Mousavi as
“really no different” than Ahmadinejad. They argued if

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Mousavi had been elected and allowed to take office it would
have been the worst outcome for the Green Movement. They
explained that Mousavi would have most likely been a team
player, falling in line to support Khamenei’s authority and
“same old” politics, leaving the young activists of the Green
Movement feeling as disappointed under a Mousavi Presidency
as they had been under Khatami.

¶12. (SBU) Instead, the election fraud and Khamenei’s backing
of Ahmadinejad have given the Green Movement a reason to
exist. “Mousavi isn’t the leader anymore and it’s not about
elections now. They stopped asking for their votes to be
counted. Now they’re asking for bigger things like real
freedom.” Khamenei’s intervention to quash election
challenges also spelled the end of what had previously been a
genuine acceptance by the Iranian population of the Supreme
Leader’s neutrality and authority. “Now most Iranians just
see him as a selfish politician who only cares about staying
in power.”

On the Road Again
—————

¶13. (SBU) Following the group’s U.S. concert tour next
spring they plan to go to Europe to promote a film in which
they played an Iranian rock band: “No One Knows about
Persian Cats” by Iranian film-maker Bahman Ghobadi, with a
screen-play co-written by American-Iranian journalist Roxane
Saberi (which she finished just before she was arrested by
Iranian security services in January 2009).

¶14. (SBU) We asked if the band’s popularity — helped by a
CNN interview in April 2009 and the Ghobadi film winning a
Cannes Festival award in May 2009, and likely to get a boost
from their forthcoming US concert tour — might put them at
greater risk when they return to Iran. They assessed not, as
long as they keep their music focused on social issues rather
than using it to attack the regime. They said that as long
as they sing in English the regime will believe they are only
singing to attract foreign audiences, and not singing to
Iran’s youth.

How Do You Keep the Music Playing
————————–

¶15. (SBU) The band members said they never buy music or
movies anymore, given the ease of free downloads. Keeping
internet connectivity is a constant challenge, however, and
requires the use of proxy servers, virtual private networks,
and filter-breaking software like “Freegate” — which many
Iranians visiting Turkey make a point of downloading while
here rather than try to download such sensitive software from
inside Iran. “We are always trying to stay connected and
almost always we can.” Wary of the regime’s efforts to use
technology to track its perceived enemies, however, the band
members no longer use Facebook or other social networking
sites, but still rely on Skype and carefully-worded text
messages.

¶16. (SBU) The band members said they and everyone they know
get news from two sources: BBC’s and VOA’s Persian
broadcasts. But the regime is stepping up efforts to block
satellite signals, they claimed, by installing massive
microwave towers in several areas of Tehran and using
microwave bursts to disrupt the signals. Local authorities
claim the towers are for cell-phone transmission, but the
musicians told us anytime they go near the towers they feel
“sudden shocks”, nausea and dizziness, and said most Iranians
(especially pregnant women and the elderly) have learned to
stay away from the towers.

Comment: These Songs of Freedom
——————–

¶17. (SBU) These astute, well-informed, and resourceful
20-something musicians offered up an insightful glimpse —
which we find credible — into a vibrant but mostly hidden
sub-culture in Iran, reinforcing the impression that Iranian
society spans a far broader and more complex spectrum than
many outside observers realize. We also find credible their
description of the regime’s treatment of their lifestyle and
activities and their general conclusion that the regime is
currently too overloaded trying to squash overt political
protests and opposition to care about less-political,
counter-culture “threats” like rock music. Despite its
radicalization, the regime appears still calculating and
sensible enough not to pick domestic, social fights it
doesn’t have to, at least while it is engaged so desperately
in fighting more immediate political threats. In such an
environment, the band is optimistic that the underground rock

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scene in Iran — and the niche arena of free, creative
expression it provides — will keep growing. End comment.
WIENER