WASHINGTON - In another step towards publicly acknowledging its deepening role in the Syrian civil war, the Iranian regime has given its blessing to a large film festival in Tehran next month highlighting Iran’s military achievements in the conflict.
Dubbed the first National Shrine Defenders Film Festival, the event scheduled for May 23-25 will showcase films and videos highlighting the role of fallen Iranian fighters and Iranian-backed guerillas fighting in Syria.
The Fars News Agency and the Katibeh Navay-e Fatemi cultural organization - both aligned with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria - are two main sponsors, according to the festival web site.
Fars News Agency is considered the official mouthpiece of the IRGC, and Navay-e Fatemi is recognized for showcasing IRGC cultural promotions.
Seyyed Ali Taheri, the speaker of the cultural committee in the Iranian parliament, said his committee is also fully supportive of the festival.
Iranian presence in Syria
Over the last two years, the IRGC has led ground battles for the Syrian regime, joining with Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, according to Syrian and Iranian news reports.
Tehran reportedly increased the number of IRGC personnel in Syria in the final months of 2015, sending as many as 3,500 militia fighters to the frontlines. Iranian media say they are there to defend Zeinab Shrine, a holy site for Shi'ite Muslims in the southern suburbs of Damascus.
But news accounts and intelligence reports say Iranian-led forces are the backbone of a Syrian ground battle plan to fight rebels and Islamic State fighters.
The Iranian military presence in Syria was beefed up this month by the deployment of a top army unit in what commanders call an advisory mission, according to state-run media, which also says that more than 220 Iranian fighters have died in the conflict.
Festival to honor fighters
The film festival will highlight the sacrifices of fallen fighters, organizers say, as well show the impacts on their families.
According to the festival website, categories will include “narrative and documentary feature” and “experimental, animation, and music video selections.” There will be competitive and non-competitive sections, the website said.
Some 320 entries were submitted, according to the festival’s newsletter. Some of the filmmakers traveled to Syria to interview Iranian fighters and show scenes from battles, according to the festival’s press release.
“This first ever national film festival to honor shrine defenders hopes to attract a wide range of viewers from all walks of life,” the festival’s secretary, Hamid Yadrouj, said at a recent press conference.
Yadrouj declined to be interviewed by VOA when contacted by telephone.
Filmmakers say the festival also offers an opportunity for Iranians to learn of their nation’s accomplishments in Syria.
“When the sacrifice in Syria is a fact and reality of today’s life, it must be covered,” said Amirhossein Sharifi an Iranian filmmaker who is participating in the festival.
“If we have a film festival for ‘Sacrifice Defense’ glorifying our eight-year resistance against the Iraqi invasion, what deters us from having a film festival for the ones who sacrifice themselves for their faith?” he asked, referring to the defense of the Zeinab Shrine.
Getting public support for war
Some experts on Iran affairs say the festival offers a platform for the IRGC to get public backing for the Syrian war efforts.
“The IRGC is using the war in Syria to achieve a double purpose: legitimize its participation in the war in Syria and secure public support for the Islamic Republic's war effort in that country,” said Ali Alfoneh, a Washington-based IRGC analyst.
But festival organizer Yadrouj told Iranian media that the event is not aligned with the Iranian regime.
“We did not use any public funds for this festival because we wanted to keep its independency [sic],” he said.
The festival winning entries, though, will be featured on state-run Iranian national television channels, a festival press release says.
“This is a very tempting incentive for some young filmmakers to find themselves in the hall of fame,” said Majid Beheshti, a prominent U.K.-based Iranian filmmaker who fled Iran in the late 1990s.
Still, Beheshti said there are limits to freedom of expression in Iran, adding that the festival is “also designed to shape and sway public opinion for certain purposes.”