Aug. 14 (UPI) -- China boasts of a few and so does Russia. Now, Iran has one as well: a state-sponsored rap artist to counter what the regime in Tehran perceives not only as a Western "cultural onslaught" against Iran's traditional culture and values but as a Western plot to mobilize Iran's youth against the regime.
The Islamic Republic may skilfully use rap music and Western culture to deflect attention from social problems in Iran but propaganda alone is not likely to defuse the time bomb of youth dissatisfaction against the regime in Tehran.
As Fars News Agency celebrated the anniversary of the establishment of its subsidiary Fars Plus, a certain Amir-Hossein Maghsoudloo was the news agency's guest of honor.
Fars News is no regular news agency: For all practical purposes, it serves as the mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Nor is Maghsoudloo a regular guest of honor in Iran's official media circles. Better known as Tataloo, he is a rap artist covered in tattoos, served two prison terms and boasts more than 4 million followers on Instagram.
Tataloo, 33, began his career as an underground musician. Concerts and distribution of music in Iran require official permits from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance but, as with most musicians of his kind, the regime tolerated Tataloo's work.
However, as Radio Farda, the Persian-language branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Los Angeles-based Persian language media began broadcasting his music videos to Iran, the Justice Administration of Tehran charged Tataloo with "encouraging [moral] corruption" - Islamic Republic officialese for unspecified social activities disliked by the regime - and he served prison terms in 2013 and 2016.
Within that period, Tataloo and the regime found each other. Perhaps to get a licence to give public concerts and distribute his music on the Iranian home market, Tataloo began producing music videos with nationalist and religious themes.
Famously, during Iran's nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, Tataloo produced a music video - shot aboard Jamaran, an Iranian Navy destroyer - titled: An Armed Persian Gulf is our Inalienable Right. The video was released July 13, 2015, the day before the parties reached the nuclear deal, and the title played on the regime's mantra of "peaceful nuclear energy" being Iran's "inalienable right."
By that time, the regime - at least in public - tried to keep its distance from Tataloo. Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, the Iranian Navy chief, who had authorized filming of the music video aboard its destroyer, claimed ignorance of Tataloo's "criminal record." Tataloo for a few months avoided overt endorsement of the regime to preserve his street credibility as a rebellious rap artist who happens to be patriotic.
That approach did not work for long. Tataloo soon endorsed candidates Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf and later Ebrahim Raeisi before the presidential election last May.
However, with angry fans disillusioned with his being involved in partisan politics, on April 21 Tataloo released an audio message on his Telegram channel disclosing: "I don't have good political insights... what I say about politics is inspired by what I hear from a good friend of mine who works at the IRGC intelligence [organization] whose political insight is beneficial to me and others." The audio message has been removed from Tataloo's account but is available on YouTube.
The marriage of convenience between Tataloo and the regime or, in less generous terms, the IRGC taking advantage of a rap artist for propaganda purposes, is a clever move by the regime. The IRGC is effectively turning rap music, which it had perceived as a threat, into a propaganda tool.
There are limits to what propaganda can do. In Iran, the real problems are youth unemployment, narcotics abuse, poverty, broken or dysfunctional families, prostitution, a corrupt political and economic culture and brain drain as talented young Iranians flee the country in pursuit of a better life.
These are the social ills for which the Islamic Republic must be held responsible and no amount of propaganda can deflect attention from it.
Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.