Lights, Cameras, Revolution

NITV: America's Secret Weapon Against Iran

Something remarkable has been happening in Iran this past week.

Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets demanding regime change -- in their own country.

What's emboldened them to take on the strict Islamic clerics who run Iran? Threats of military strikes?

No, a tiny TV station in Los Angeles and others like it -- broadcasting directly into Iran, fomenting revolution against the Islamic government.

In fact, many of the protestors have been called to the streets by a balding Iranian rock star, a Persian actor who can't get a role and a one-eyed talk show host who speaks in Farsi -- all working in a small television studio on the wrong side of Hollywood.

It's called NITV and if the Bush Administration hasn't realized its potential as a weapon, Iran's ruling ayatollahs certainly have, reports Correspondent Bob Simon in a broadcast that first aired Oct. 23, 2002.

National Iranian Television sounds like the government's official network, but it is anything but that. Watched by millions of Iranians with satellite dishes, NITV uses humor to attack the ruling Islamic regime.

NITV is the brainchild of Zia Atabay, a rock star who was known as the "Tom Jones of Iran" until the ayatollahs forced him to flee to America.

Twenty years and one toupee later, he took some money from his wife's plastic surgery business and bought a former porn studio in North Hollywood.

From there, he launched National Iranian Television, intended to provide culture from their native land for Iranians living in North America.

Iran may be half a world away, but the talent NITV needed was just around the corner. From among the 600,000 Iranians who call Los Angeles home, Zia had no problem finding TV personalities who were stars in Iran before the mullahs chased them out.

The "Dan Rather of Iran" was in L.A. So was the "Persian Larry King." There were a host of hosts available for a "Good Morning, Iran" show.

Among them is Raffi Khachatourian, who lost his left eye in Los Angeles when some members of Hezbollah attacked him a few years ago on Wilshire Boulevard.

"As long as I have my mouth, and my tongue, my big mouth, I'm gonna do against Islamic Republic," he says.

Initially, NITV was a business venture. His audience would be Iranians living in North America. Zia wasn't interested in politics. He was interested in making money.

That changed one week after NITV went on the air. In Miami, where NITV's satellite uplink beamed the Los Angeles broadcast to cities in the U.S. and Canada, an engineer hit the wrong switch.

The "Iranian Larry King," Alireza Meybodi, was on NITV that day taking live calls when he got a call from someone claiming to be in Isfahan, Iran's second-largest city.

Meybodi didn't believe him. NITV couldn't reach Iran, he thought. Zia made some phone calls and learned the incredible news: The engineer's mistake had put NITV into Iran.

"Everybody in the studio, all of us were crying," Zia says. "It was unbelievable. We feel, after 20 years, we feel we are back at home. We feel that they kicked us out. They took our passports. But we, we came back."

It took only six hours for most of Iran to learn about NITV. Thousands of faxes and phone calls began pouring in. "The lines was just blinking," Zia recalls. "We didn't have time to answer. And fax machine was out of paper every hour."

What were people saying?

"They said, 'Thanks to you, thanks to God.' Some people even thought, maybe, it is revolution," says Zia.

Satellite dishes, already popular in Iran, began sprouting like mushrooms. Iranians wanted their NITV, and the mullahs could hardly offer an alternative.

Dr. Ali Mohammadi, who studies Iranian media from London, says state television can't compare to NITV. "The Iranian TV unfortunately belongs to a different century," he says.

Iranians sold valuable carpets and, in one case, a kidney, to raise funds for a dish. It wasn't just what they could see and hear; it's what they could say. For the first time, they had a forum where they could air their grievances. That's what they did - until they were silenced.

Iran, Zia says, "started jamming us. One time after three days, we change it to another satellite. They jam us again. Pissed me off. Pissed me off."

Helicopters took to the skies of Tehran to look for satellite dishes. On the ground, dishes were confiscated by revolutionary guards. Viewers were treated to jail sentences and floggings.

Zia shelled out more money for a more powerful uplink in New Jersey, which the Iranians couldn't jam. And he made a programming decision: Forget about news and culture, NITV would be about politics.

He hired Ali Dean, an Iranian comedian with a talent for impersonating ayatollahs. He'd been surviving in Hollywood by playing terrorists. Thanks to technology, NITV and Ali Dean took on the mullahs in a language they understood.

"They hate me because they don't like nobody impersonate them," Dean says. "To them, they are untouchable. To me, there is no untouchable."

Dean had no trouble finding material to play a character he calls Mullah Hajii. All he had to do was study videotapes of the sermons given by the real ayatollahs back in Iran.

It's not hard to make fun of because "it's funny already. It's nonsense," Dean says.

Four nights a week, Dean's Mullah Hajii takes live calls from Iranian viewers and dispenses guidance like any ayatollah would.

One caller from Tehran says Iranians have been crying for 23 years, and asks, "How much longer must we cry?"

"Another 50 years," bellows Mullah Hajii. "Crying is good for you."

So is smiling. And the people of Iran are beginning to do that. "They're dying to smile," says Zia."They're dying to dance. Look, the Iranian government wouldn't see Iranians happy. They cannot take it."

And the mullahs really couldn't take what NITV did on Sept. 11. Hours after the attacks, Zia took to the air with a message for Iranian youth: "To show your feeling and share your feelings with American people, come to the Mossani square in Tehran and bring your candle."

They brought their candles and their voices, shouting, "Death to terrorists." Six thousand demonstrators were called to the streets of Tehran by Zia Atabay in North Hollywood, the only show of support for America in the Islamic world.

This week, Iranians were back protesting again, summoned to the streets again by NITV. Zia was flexing his muscle again, but the cost of the jam-free satellite is bankrupting NITV.

Zia says that without outside help, he will have to close down. Major sponsors seem unwilling to incur the wrath of Tehran, and commercials for basmati rice will take NITV only so far.

"I am that kind of comedian whose life is in danger," Zia says. "And my life is in jeopardy (because) I work, you have seen it, and I don't make money. Isn't that funny?"

One would have thought that NITV's success in Iran would make the Bush administration shiver with delight. But Washington has not responded to NITV's requests for help.

The stress is getting to Zia. In 2002, he suffered a heart attack. Ali Dean had one, too. And it doesn't help that there is a price on their heads in Iran.

Despite the threats, the heart attacks and the mounting bills, Zia is on the air, telling the mullahs that they're headed for the dustbin of history. And that NITV will help put them there.

Why does he do it?

"I don't think I can explain it to you because you have to be in my shoes, you have to be in my heart, my soul, to find out what I don't have," says Zia. "I don't have a right to go and see my father's grave."

"They took the bones. I don't know what they did with it. These people of God. This was my country. And who take over? The liars, somebody on behalf of God, killing hundreds, hundreds of best children that we have."

That is why, he says, "even if tomorrow I close NITV, even tomorrow I have a second heart attack and I die, I did what I had to do."

Since this story was first broadcast last fall, viewers have kept NITV afloat with private donations, enough so that Ali Dean can now get paid.
But NITV has still not received any funds from Washington.