Reporter's Notebook: Iran

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The 'Morning Edition' Series

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep has just returned from a reporting trip to Iran. He discusses what he learned about how Iranians view their own country and what it was like reporting on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

NPR's Steve Inskeep just returned from a trip to Iran to report on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution along with correspondent Mike Shuster. The Morning Edition co-host visited a shrine to the Ayatollah Khomeini, a martyrs' museum and spoke with editors and politicians, including Kazem Jalali, the chairman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, who told him that the U.S. relationship to Iran can change if America loses what he called its arrogant attitude.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, February 5, 2009)

Mr. KAZEM JALALI (Chairman, National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, Majlis of Iran): (Through translator) For example, if this attitude is changed from the Americans, the Iranian nuclear issue will very easily be solved. If this attitude is changed by the Americans, for example, in the case of terrorism, we will be a very good, helpful partner helping the Americans.

CONAN: Steve also spoke with regular people, including a young man named Reza and his fiancee shopping for a wedding ring in uncertain times. Through an interpreter Steve asked him what he thinks about the economy.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, February 4, 2009)

REZA (Iranian Citizen): (Farsi spoken).

Unidentified Interpreter: He says that's a very risky, dangerous question because whatever we say, there's a possibility that somebody comes as...

REZA: (Through translator) I have to say, it's very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REZA: (Through translator) And it cannot be better than this.

CONAN: Steve Inskeep joins us now in Studio 3A to tell us about his trip and to take your questions. Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Steve, thanks very much for being with us.

STEVE INSKEEP: Delighted to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And it's amazing how well irony can be translated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Yeah, they certainly had a rich sense of that. Later in the same interview, the guy told me something and said, no, they'll execute us. And he was being half serious because you can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing in Iran, although a degree of debate is allowed there.

CONAN: A degree of debate, there are lots of different political parties, though. We note that every time there's an election there's a large number of candidates who are not allowed to run.

INSKEEP: Absolutely, and that's one of the contradictions of this place. There is a democracy, particularly compared to some other countries in the region that you could aim at. There is a range of debate that is allowed, but you cannot question the basic tenants of the Islamic Revolution there, and there are some codes of enforcement having to do with your personal life. Now, inside their homes, Iranians do anything they want to do. Let's be frank. People drink; people dress as they want to dress; people socialize with whom they want to socialize. But out in the street, women are required to cover their hair, they're required to dress modestly, and there are these morals police, going around enforcing that and paying attention to what you do and say.

CONAN: Now, how much contact do those people have with the outside world? I've heard that, in fact, the Iranian national flower is the satellite dish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Yes, it's absolutely true. I mean, this was even true in Iraq, which was much more repressive under Saddam Hussein and still people managed to get satellite dishes, which were not permitted, and it is - it's ubiquitous. It's absolutely true in Iran. Now, you don't see them. I mean, you place them in a discreet place where you don't see them, but then you fall into a conversation with somebody who says, you know, I was watching the BBC the other day and maybe listening to NPR, in a few cases, who knows? Welcome to the program, if you are listening in Tehran. But in any event, people are connected to the outside world.

CONAN: And some of the people you talked to, I was most interested, in the context of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, people who came there 30 years ago, some of them from exile to work with the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters, people who later became very disillusioned, may have gotten thrown into jail - some of them had to leave the country - nevertheless, supported the revolution, the ideals of the revolution and said, things have changed for the better.

INSKEEP: You know, my colleague, Mike Shuster, had a number of excellent conversations with people, including one with the guy who knew Ayatollah Khomeini, who worked with him at that time, and I'm paraphrasing here - you can go back and see if I got it a little wrong - but I'm paraphrasing when I say that the man's feeling was that the revolution was a time when everyone agreed on what they did not want. They did not want the Shah of Iran, who'd been an increasingly repressive, although Westernizing, ruler up until 1979. But once the Shah was gone, there was disagreement about what they did want.

And the winner of that argument was Ayatollah Khomeini, who wanted an Islamic Republic with Islamic rules in the traditional interpretation that he wanted to impose, and the losers were people across the political spectrum, ranging from Westernizers to people we consider liberals to communists and socialists. Some of their ideas did survive. This is, in some ways, a socialist republic, where they try to look after people, and there's a lot of assistance, at least in theory, to the poor, and there are programs and proposals to deal with the economy from the state. There's a lot of state control of the economy. There is an awful lot of that going on, but the people who had those ideas were eliminated, and whenever there's a question between Islam and other ideas, Islam wins.

CONAN: And what surprised you? We're talking about politics, political issues. You can read about a lot of these issues in newspapers in this country.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

CONAN: Being there, what surprised you?

INSKEEP: Well, one thing - let me tell you about the visit with that lawmaker that we heard about earlier, Jalali, the head of the National Security Committee. You go to the Iranian Parliament building and this is a place where people denounce America all day long. It's a spectacular building, a kind of a lopsided pyramid. Clearly, a lot of money went into it, and that's one thing: This is a very well-off country, and Tehran looks a lot wealthier than most of the cities in the surrounding countries - places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or even parts of Turkey. There's a lot of money there.

The second thing is you go to the security guy; you introduce yourself; you give an ID; it's clear that you're an American. You're in this place where they denounce America, and he gives you a big smile and says, oh, an American, I'll let you right in! They're happy to see Americans. People in Iran are delighted in general, as people in that region are, they're very generous to guests from anywhere, even if they hated you. And America in particular, people are fascinated to talk. Then you get inside; you're sitting in this spectacular legislative chamber, where you are reminded that there is, within limits, a certain amount of political debate, although there's not a lot of it beyond those bounds. And the debate ends for the morning right on time, because it's also regulated, and this chairman comes up and talks about America's arrogant attitude, specifically, Neal Conan's arrogant attitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Imagine that on a piece of tape we didn't use, but...

CONAN: Didn't use.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but...

CONAN: Save that.

INSKEEP: But there are contradictions there. I mean, they like Americans, but disagree with the policies. That's the way that many of them like to say it.

CONAN: Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition, formerly graced this airway from time to time as a guest host on Talk of the Nation, but well, he's too big for that now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join the conversation; email us, talk@npr.org. Gary's with us, calling from Nashville.

GARY (Caller): Hi, Neal, Steve, first-time caller, a regular listener. I just wanted to ask Steve if he had an opportunity to interview several Iranian citizens, regular citizens, and what their attitudes are toward the United States and its people and cultures.

CONAN: And just let me add an addendum to what Gary says. A lot of places you can go you can do what you call vox-pop on the streets, but there's a minder from the Ministry of Information who's always with you. Was there a minder with you?

INSKEEP: In a sense. I believe in past years, it would have been somebody from the government. What they've now done is actually privatize that; they've subcontracted that out. And so, we had an interpreter who was from a state-approved firm, which doesn't sound so free, but I didn't have any restrictions on who I spoke with; I didn't feel that there were any problems particularly in the interpretation of what was coming back to me. The only real problem I had was whether the individuals that I met on the street - and I did do that, by the way, Gary, quite a few times, everywhere that I could - the only restriction was whether people were a little too nervous to talk with me. And in many cases, people would say things like, well, I'll talk to you about the business climate or my business, but I just don't want to answer any questions about politics. It's just too dangerous for the average person.

Nevertheless, Gary, there were people - and you can look this up at npr.org and listen to some of the stories - who spoke quite movingly about the economy. We heard that gentleman saying, you know - joking about it, I have to say everything is very good, but in such a way that you knew it was very bad. And then he told us all the facts of his life, which made it clear that he can't pay the bills and he's struggling to get started as a 24-year-old. We spoke with an elderly woman who was extraordinarily unhappy. She needed to be supported by her son, who was a taxi driver, making the equivalent of $10 a day, and it wasn't enough and they had a very, very modest apartment, is the best thing I can say, and it was the top of five flights of stairs that she struggled to climb up every day. People were willing to describe the basic facts of their lives.

GARY: I understand.

CONAN: OK, Gary. Thanks very much.

GARY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Katie. Katie's with us from Tallahassee.

KATIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KATIE: I just wanted to say that I lived in Iran from '77 through '79, so I felt like this wave from when the revolution began until, you know, it reached its peak, and when we were evacuated, we had to sit on the tarmac for quite a long time because we later found out that the guards that had taken the Shah to Egypt had intercepted the air space and flew back into Tehran.

CONAN: And so, you were being held there just because flights were not going in and out or because there was some threat?

KATIE: Because - yes, because - no, there were no - there was no threat. It's just that the air traffic controllers were at a minimum, and they just flew back into the air space when we were about to take off.

CONAN: And...

KATIE: As we were taxiing.

CONAN: What did you see of the revolution when you were there, Katie?

KATIE: Well, I taught at the University of Isfahan, and there were demonstrations every day, but there was never a threat to the Americans who were there at that time. The Iranians were quite friendly and very interested in what our philosophies and beliefs were. But they said there - they had no complaint with the American people; it was the American government.

CONAN: And you've been able to get your life back together, obviously, in the 30 years since.

KATIE: Oh, yeah, and I would love to go back to Iran. It's a beautiful country, and there are beautiful people there.

INSKEEP: I'm sure they'd be love - I'm sure they'd love to have your tourist dollars as long as you're willing to cover your hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATIE: I did. When I lived there, I always wore a scarf, I wore a long-sleeved shirt, and I respected the culture as if I went to any country.

CONAN: Katie, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.

KATIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we're talking with NPR's Steve Inskeep, the co-host of Morning Edition, who is just back from two weeks in Iran to report on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us; email us, talk@npr.org. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And Steve, one of the things we have to point out, 30 years since the Iranian Revolution, and the country's population has changed almost unrecognizably.

INSKEEP: Oh, it's exploded; it's more than doubled. And as we learned in some of our reporting - this is not like it was investigative; it's known, but not widely known, perhaps - that in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, birth control, while it was not outlawed, was frowned upon, not encouraged by the government, and there was a lot of question as to whether it was properly Islamic to be practicing family planning in Iran. And the population exploded to the extent where it ceased to be a matter of debate; the mullahs decided they needed birth control, and it was approved by the late '80s, early '90s, in a series of decisions, but there's still that exploded population, that huge group of people, who are now in their - around their 20s, and it's difficult for them to find jobs, tremendously problematic for them, and that's one of the major concerns this government now has.

CONAN: Let's get Marguerite, Marguerite with us from Boston.

MARGUERITE (Caller): Hi. Very interesting to hear about Iran. There's so much in the news. I wonder if Mr. Inskeep had people talk to him about the fact that our government removed their elected prime minister, Mossadegh, who was supposed to be a pretty good guy in 1953, and also if they still resent the fact that we went along the side of Saddam Hussein during their 1980s war between the two countries.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that because - I don't know - probably if I talked to 100 Iranians, probably 95 of them found time to mention the 1953 coup...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And some other issues, particularly people in the political elites. It's mentioned all the time; it's continuously on their minds. And if you ask any question that is seen as doubting about Iran, that's the immediate response: Well, you guys did these terrible things. I did also, though, sit down with an Iranian who said that, really, the time limit on that has expired. He said, I don't think that Iran has the right anymore to complain - this is an Iranian speaking - that Iran has no right anymore to complain about a coup in 1953. He also said, I don't think America has the right anymore to complain about the hostage-taking in 1979. It's old, and we need to move on.

CONAN: Marguerite, thanks very much.

MARGUERITE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And let's talk to Amir, and Amir's with us from Tehran.

AMIR (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hi.

CONAN: Nice to talk with you again, Amir.

AMIR: Nice to be on the show.

CONAN: Go ahead.

AMIR: Hello. Steve's comments were so comprehensive that I can safely cut my long story short. But I just hope engaging Iran on the part of President Obama doesn't mean resolving the nuclear issue as if it were the only morass. We shouldn't forget the fact that Iran's prisons can no longer cope with journalists and human-rights activists. So, any settlement about Iran should contain unequivocal comments or clauses about Iran's commitment to human rights and uncensored journalism.

INSKEEP: Amir, your voice is familiar. Did we meet in Tehran?

AMIR: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, good to talk with you again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: (Laughing) Good to talk with you again, and thanks for calling.

AMIR: Very good.

INSKEEP: Amir is one of the biggest fans in the world of National Public Radio.

CONAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And we're delighted to have him on...

CONAN: A regular caller to this program.

INSKEEP: That's great, that's great. So, your - but your substantive point is, don't just focus on the nuclear issue. There are a million different issues. Are you suggesting that maybe some accommodation is possible if people take that wide frame, because there'll be more to trade?

AMIR: Well, it sure is. My point is that we shouldn't forget all problems that we are facing here and just focus on one. I know that it is important in occidental countries like the U.S. of A. to just get this issue resolved, but it is not the only problem we are facing here.

CONAN: And it's not just that issue the United States and some of its allies would focus on sternly, Amir; that would also include terrorism-supportive groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

AMIR: Yeah, that is true. But you know, as someone who lives in Iran, I am not concerned with Hezbollah or the Palestine issue, you know? I'd just love to have more freedom of speech, and I'd just love to, for example, be able to surf Web sites without being censored or having to see filtered Web sites just because I'm living here.

CONAN: Amir, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

AMIR: My pleasure. Take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Steve, just a minute or so left. It's nice to have a guest who understands - actually, appreciates - when you say just a minute or so left. Anyway...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But I wanted to ask you, as we look ahead, one of the things, obviously, coming up is the Iranian elections and the presidential elections, and one of the big questions when you were there was whether a previous president, Mr. Khatami, was going to run, and since you left, probably because of that, he's decided to go.

INSKEEP: Yeah, he decided, since Inskeep is out of the country...

CONAN: It's safe to say this now, yeah.

INSKEEP: It's safe to make an announcement. And he did make an announcement, he is running, and he's the one person that I heard about that, when I was talking with people on the street, that you heard a widespread call for, a clamor for, popular support. I can't say that my interviews were scientific, but a lot of people were interested in this guy, who was seen as a liberalizer in his time, although many of his efforts were frustrated.

CONAN: This, of course, upcoming elections and that was - you were for the most part in Tehran. So, it's unclear what his support might be like elsewhere.

INSKEEP: Yeah, also in Mashhad. But it's much more difficult to get people to speak there, and it is going to be in the outlying areas that that election will be decided.

CONAN: Well, if you'd like to hear Steve Inskeep and Mike Shuster's pieces from Iran, go to npr.org and click on Morning Edition. Steve, we'll listen to you again, what, next week?

INSKEEP: Actually, tomorrow morning, we'll have a profile of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today, NPR's Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here to talk about revamping the nation's electric grid. Plus, a better bionic arm and a peek at the far side of the Moon and the video pick of the week. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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