Last Sunday millions of Iranians tuned in eagerly to watch their national volleyball team play Italy in an important re-match in the world FIVB championship. Just three days prior the Iranian team had trounced high-ranked Italy unexpectedly in a hair-raising game, and the mood across social media, let alone the country itself, was euphoric. Expectations were running high on Sunday, but when Iranian state television broadcast the match live, it inexplicably began repeating plays over and over, only showing live footage in snatches. Iranian volleyball fans were outraged. 

The reason, it turns out, is fairly simple: bare arms. The match was in Sardinia, and it was hot. The spectators around the court were dressed for baking Mediterranean heat, and with the court right up agains the stands, it was impossible to edit out scenes of women's arms showing. The head of Iranian state broadcasting Ezatollah Zarghami addressed volley fans' displeasure on Tuesday at a Conference to Improve the Quality of Cultural Activities and Products, saying that he was aware of the problems with the live broadcast but up against major challenges. “Broadcasting these games is even harder than the presidential debates,” he said. 

Zarghami warned similar issues might arise this Sunday when Iran plays Cuba, citing the warm weather as as particular challenge. But he said the Islamic Republic's authorities had the situation under control, joking: “We've decided to negotiate with our cultural colleagues in Cuba, and try to get the spectators [at the match] to wear sweatshirts and long pants, so we don't face such problems again.” The weather forecast for Havana on Sunday is 32 degrees C, 90 F. 

In his remarks Zarghami seemed conflicted about what to do, and acknowledged that he faced a truly multi-faceted problem. Iranians love volleyball, but their morality was at stake.  He explained that he met with senior clerics and told them, “If we want to be on the right side of sharia, we shouldn't broadcast this Sunday's match with Cuba. Given the heat, the images are going to be even worse. But if we don't show the match, the viewers will turn to satellite channels, and the elders said the best course is to show the match but with broadcasting control.”

Another quandary for Zarghami are the attractive Iranian women fans who show up with bare arms. They paint the Iranian flag on their face, and hold up Iranian flags. They appear to love their country, and yet they are showing skin.  Zarghami suggested it was a shame their images couldn't be broadcast:  “Although from a sharia point of view we know we must not show such images, but we are very upset that we cannot show that even such Iranians, wearing such clothes, are our supporters.” 

The truncated broadcast of the match with Italy provoked anger even amongst Iranian officials. The renegade MP Ali Motahari, a conservative-turned-Rouhani supporter, rang Zarghami to complain, he said. Zarghami said he invited Motahari to watch the footage in his office on slow motion, to become fully acquainted with its problematic nature. “In slow motion he witnessed that there was a lady with short sleeves amongst the crowd, an image that wasn't at all visible when played at normal speed.”

Such concerns reflect the immensity of the gap between Iran's top officials and the majority of its population, who are eager to participate in global culture and would, I suspect, consider Zarghami's soul-searching absurd. As my colleague Omid Memarian reported earlier this week, a campaign to support an Iranian female swim champion went viral recently after authorities refused to register her record on grounds she was inappropriately dressed. If state broadcasting can't reach a basic accommodation with society over the fans in the background of a volleyball match, what will Rouhani be up against when he tries to deal with gender segregation at universities and other, arguably, more urgent issues? 

Perhaps Zarghami realizes the delicacy of his task, which boils down to withholding from Iranians what they consider it their right to see and watch. He describes what he told the live broadcast control staff at state television:  “I thanked [them] for their work on the second Iran-Italy match, I told them, 'your work was even hard than broadcasting the election debates.'” 

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