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Iran's Stars, Erased From the Billboards

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008

TEHRAN — Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh might be the strongest man in the world, but forces more powerful than his mighty arms prevent the two-time Olympic champion from exploiting his strength on billboards and in TV commercials.

Like many international sports stars, Rezazadeh, the "Iranian Hercules," earns extra income by doing commercials. Some years ago, he appeared in an advertisement on Iranian state TV promoting engine oil. But when he starred in a commercial for a Dubai real estate agency on a satellite channel that is banned in Iran, the weightlifter stumbled up against Iranian authorities.

Rezazadeh is famous for his piety. He calls upon the brother of the Shiite third imam -- "O Abalfazl," he shouts -- when he jerks particularly heavy weights. After big wins, he waves portraits of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rezazadeh's 2003 wedding took place in Mecca and was broadcast live on Iranian state television.

The real-estate commercial shows a different Rezazadeh. The weightlifter is seen walking into the office of a Dubai-based agency, where a smooth Iranian salesman tells him about opportunities in the emirate's booming housing market. Rezazadeh nods approvingly and says he thinks a Dubai property would be a good investment.

Many Iranians, who watch satellite TV on illegal dishes and receivers, laughed at the spectacle of their "champion of champions" so obviously trying to make a buck, but the Iranian authorities, sensitive about satellite TV, Dubai's success and Rezazadeh's image, were not amused.

Earlier this month, officials banned all Iranian celebrities from appearing in TV commercials and said their faces could not be shown on billboards or in other ads.

"These cultural and sport personalities are examples of honoring the Islamic Republic of Iran," Ali Reza Karimi, of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, said in a circular. "They should promote the spirit of gallantry and not the culture of consumerism."

But the culture of consumerism is ubiquitous in the Iranian capital. The streets of Tehran are lined with billboards promoting Western jeans, perfumes and cars, often next to murals hailing "martyrs" from the Iran-Iraq war.

In 2004, billboards showing British soccer star David Beckham were draped in black because the government decided they were "promoting Western values."

But four years on, billboards in north Tehran show American actor George Clooney promoting Omega watches. Iranian actors were displeased that they had been barred from such work.

"Why him, an American, but not an Iranian?" one movie star's manager asked.

"Artists can earn extra money only by doing these kinds of ads," said Mahtab Keramati, an actress.


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