At first glance, it looks like the United Kingdom has taken a hardline against Iranian efforts to radicalize British Muslims by broadcasting Islamist propaganda into their homes. In July, UK media regulator Ofcom issued a warning to a pro-Iranian television station for broadcasting antisemitic programming to British Muslims. In its warning, Ofcom declared that a guest on a show aired by Ahlebait TV in March 2021 violated English law against hate speech by engaging in commentary that was “abusive and derogatory to Jewish people.”
The violation took place on a weekly live program “20th Hour” which discusses current affairs from an Islamic perspective. In the segment, a guest declared that the Jews have been expelled from 47 countries because they practiced usury, which the guest said was “a weapon of war.” The host appeared to agree with the guest’s antisemitic statements, which had the potential to incite anti-Jewish intolerance, Ofcom declared. The station broadcasts Islamist programming in English, Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati — all languages spoken by significant Muslim populations in the UK.
Ofcom’s warning to Ahlebait TV represents a finger in the dike when it comes to hindering the broadcast of Islamist propaganda into the UK and other Western democracies. In particular, the UK allows Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Press TV and other news outlets to broadcast its propaganda to Shia communities in the West.
These stations are broadcast to Western audiences through an internet channel Shia TV Box. Shia TV Box, a video streaming channel established in early 2021, claims to be a non-profit but is not registered as a company or charity in the United Kingdom. It is a creation of Hidayat TV, an Iranian-controlled internet outlet whose website was seized by the US government in June 2021 for having direct ties to Tehran.
Shia TV Box was established three years after Google deleted a network of 39 YouTube stations tied to the Iranian regime “for running an influence campaign starting as early as January 2017 while disguising its connection to Iran.”
In response to the loss of its YouTube stations, Iran started broadcasting its propaganda through websites controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC). These sites were shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice in the final months of the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration seized another 33-domains used to broadcast regime propaganda, but by then, Shia TV Box was already in operation.
Operating under a British internet domain, Shia Box TV provides a single interface to access Islamist programming from Iran, making Tehran’s narrative available in languages spoken by Shias throughout the world. These stations are either regime-controlled, affiliated or approved. Some are banned in the U.S.
For example, the video streaming service provides access to stations directly funded and controlled by Tehran and the Supreme Leader’s office such as all channels of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and Al Aalam (the Arabic version of Press TV which broadcasts in English).
Other stations broadcast on the channel include Beirut-based Al-Manar, the official news station of Hezbollah banned in Great Britain, France, Germany. It was listed as a terrorist entity by the US Department of Justice in 2004 and named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2006.
Shia Box TV also transmits programming from Al-Masirah, another Iranian-backed station that also broadcasts from Beirut. The official network of the Houthis, Iran’s proxy accused of committing crimes against humanity in Yemen, Al-Masirah parrots Iranian talking points by blaming the regional and world problems on the West, Israel and the Gulf States not aligned with Tehran.
The UK’s apparent reluctance to shut down Shia Box TV is the likely consequence of two factors. First, although many British Muslims don’t support the Islamist anti-Western narrative coming out of Iran, UK officials have to contend with a segment of radical and aggressive Islamists who are in lock step with Tehran’s agenda and officials may not want to antagonize this community.
Second, it doesn’t help that Tehran is holding as many as 30 Westerners in its prisons as part of its strategy of “hostage diplomacy.” Under these circumstances, UK officials have apparently concluded that it’s better to leave well enough alone.
Hopefully, under the leadership of newly elected Prime Minister Liz Truss UK officials may muster the nerve to investigate Shia Box TV. Until such action is taken, the United Kingdom will continue to be a conduit for Iran’s Islamist incitement into the West.
Adrian Calamel is an analyst specializing in in the Middle East and terrorism and the author of a forthcoming book on Hezbollah. You can follow him on Twitter: @AdrianCalamel