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Watching 'House of Cards' in Tehran, to Hard-Liners' Delight

The arrival of "House of Cards" has caused something of a stir in Iran, where American programming is extremely rare, and where authorities routinely denounce Western pop culture as decadent and un-Islamic

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    This image released by Netflix shows Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood in a scene from "House of Cards." Farnaz Rahmani, a 17-year-old high school student in Iran, said she thinks state TV is showing "House of Cards" to prove that U.S. politicians are deceitful.

    Iran's government has long tried to keep out American pop culture, but it seems happy to let Iranians watch the backstabbing, deceitful machinations of fictional U.S. politician Frank Underwood in "House of Cards." 

    Iran's hard-liners point to the show and say: This is what America is really like. 

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    The sudden arrival of the Netflix series, which stars Kevin Spacey as a South Carolina congressman who connives his way to the presidency, illustrates the reach and popularity of Western television and film. It also offers a window into the thinking of Iran's censors, who have approved the dark portrayal of power politics and even murder in the corridors of Washington — but not the bedroom scenes. 

    "It shows how politics is dirty in the United States," said Mohammad Kazemi, a student of mechanics at Tehran's Azad University. "They do anything to reach power." 

    Every night at 11 p.m., the state-run Namayesh channel airs the program dubbed into Farsi, calling it "Khaneh Poushaly," or "Straw House." It started playing the show in late September, beginning with its first season, which follows Underwood as the manipulative House majority whip. 

    The arrival of "House of Cards" has caused something of a stir in Iran, where American programming is extremely rare, and where authorities routinely denounce Western pop culture as decadent and un-Islamic. The government blocks many websites, but a ban on satellite dishes is rarely enforced. Many Iranians, particularly the young, watch foreign shows on the internet or purchase pirated DVDs of movies and TV series, which are widely available at street markets. 

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    Farnaz Rahmani, a 17-year-old high school student, said she thinks state TV is showing "House of Cards" to prove that U.S. politicians are deceitful. 

    "For me it is a chance to fill my spare time with a good TV series. Maybe it is also a chance for the TV to attract more people to Iranian channels," she said. 

    Iranian media have also noted its arrival, with the conservative website Tabnak praising Spacey's "brilliant portrayal" of Underwood, who conspires with his wife to amass power in Washington through blackmail and betrayal. On social media, users have shared a clip of Spacey and co-star Robin Wright dubbed over in Farsi, discussing how to navigate the halls of power. 

    The drama offers a jaundiced view of American politics that plays well in a country long suspicious of U.S. intentions. Iranians still blame America for the CIA-engineered coup in 1953 that installed the shah, and fury at the United States boiled over during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, leading to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. 

    Nearly 40 years on, Iranian hard-liners still portray the United States as the "Great Satan," hatching conspiracies involving everyone from Israel's Mossad spy agency to the Islamic State group — in other words, as the Frank Underwood of the Middle East. 

    "'House of Cards' has been able to skillfully show the deception in the complicated political sphere of liberal American civilization, as well as treason, power-hungriness, promiscuities and crimes behind those ruling in the country," the hard-line website Mashregh wrote. 

    The show was approved by the massive Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting corporation, whose chief is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian television previously broadcast the British series that inspired the show. 

    Neither Namayesh nor the IRIB have commented publicly on the decision to air "House of Cards," and there are no figures for viewership. Calls to the IRIB were not immediately returned this week. 

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    It's also unclear what deal, if any, Iran struck with the show's producers. Iran and the U.S. have no official agreements on copyright protection, and Netflix is not available in Iran. 

    Netflix, based in Los Gatos, California, said it did not have a global license to sell "House of Cards," without commenting on its newfound home on Iranian state television. A public relations firm for Media Rights Capital, the production house behind the show, did not respond to requests for comment. 

    The IRIB is happy to show Iranian viewers the seductions of power, but not the more literal variety. 

    The show has been edited to remove the steamier scenes between Underwood and young reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, in line with Islamic sensibilities.