Koppel Documentary Examines View from Iran

Broadcaster Ted Koppel talks about his new two-hour documentary on the relationship between Iran and the West. Iran: the Most Dangerous Nation examines terrorism, politics, women's rights, religion and history, and gives a variety of Iranians an opportunity to speak.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1979, ABC News aired a series of special reports after Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took U.S. diplomats and Marines hostage. After a few weeks, America's - ABC's diplomatic reporter, Ted Koppel, became the host. Then later, America Held Hostage evolved into Nightline, a daily program that came to feature a unique blend of long-form journalism interviews and town hall meetings.

After 25 years and many awards, Ted Koppel left ABC News in 2005 to take over as managing editor of the Discovery Channel. His first special on civil liberties in time of war was also broadcast here on NPR. His second is a two-hour documentary that airs Sunday night on Discovery called Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation, and it examines the troubled history between the United States and Iran, terrorism, politics, women's rights, religion and history, and gives a variety of Iranians an unusual opportunity to speak.

Later in the hour, a new feature film about living and working and eating in Fast Food Nation. But first, if you have questions for Ted Koppel about Iran or about his career in broadcast journalism, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now from NPR's bureau in New York City is Ted Koppel, managing editor at the Discovery Channel and, lest we forget, a senior news analyst here at NPR. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

TED KOPPEL: Mr. Conan, sir.

CONAN: Let me begin with your title, sir. The Most Dangerous Nation is how the Bush administration described Iran, and Iranians you spoke with don't see it that way.

KOPPEL: Well, you know, not surprisingly, there's been a lot of name-calling that goes back and forth. The precise language that President Bush used in an interview some time ago was that Iran was the most dangerous threat to peace. He has, of course, also included Iran in the axis of evil, as you may recall, which, when he gave his state of the union address, included Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Well, Iraq may still belong in some kind of an axis, but it's no longer in the axis of evil, so you've got North Korea and Iran. And it's interesting that we regard them - I say our government regards their government as being perhaps the most dangerous in the world, and theirs regards ours exactly the same way.

CONAN: And there's a moment where you ask a senior Iranian - do you think the United States is trying to provoke war?

KOPPEL: Actually, he was a fairly senior ayatollah, conservative ayatollah.

CONAN: Hard to tell the difference sometimes.

KOPPEL: Well, not only hard to tell the difference, the Supreme Leader, as he is known in Iran, is the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, and he really does hold the power. Those of us who believe that because our president is at the top of the pecking order in this country, that therefore Ahmadinejad is at the top of the pecking order in Iran have got it wrong.

Ahmadinejad is - really does not have a great deal of individual power. The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini does.

CONAN: And in any case, when you were talking to him about this - actually, let's play a clip. This is a conversation between you an ayatollah about how Iranians, for example, see 9/11.

(Soundbite of Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation)

Unidentified Man (Iranian Ayatollah): How much harmful was the 9/11 for America, and how much beneficial was it? I think it was more beneficial than the other issues.

KOPPEL: How could it be...

Unidentified Man: Because it was, as I said.

KOPPEL: Within two years...

Unidentified Man: It made him to make the people accept - because the people, they were not easily accepting provoking war in Afghanistan. But now you can say it was acceptable.

CONAN: And we should clarify, he said of course it was terrible for those people who died and that neither he nor any other Muslim, he said, would condone it. Nevertheless, he said he thought he found it very useful for American policy.

KOPPEL: He thought that the Bush administration used 9/11 - and quite clearly I think it is reasonable to say, and there were a lot of analysts in this country who made the same observation - that we could not have gone to war against Iraq had it not been for 9/11.

And obviously the Bush administration made the point repeatedly that there seemed to be a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, and while no real connection or direct connection has ever been proved, nevertheless I think that was one of the casus belli that was used to take us to war against Iraq.

CONAN: And one of the ironies that you explore in some depth in this is that of course Iraq was Iran's great enemy. They fought this terrible war for seven or eight years that involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

KOPPEL: Well, it may have completely altered the face of Iran in this sense, Neal. I think the estimates are that somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 young Iranian men either died or were severely wounded in that war against Iraq. And while the United States took the position at the time, during the 1980s while that war was going on, that it wasn't, you know, it didn't have a dog in that fight and it wasn't going to get involved on either side, in reality Washington did get involved.

Don Rumsfeld, as a matter of fact, went over to see Saddam Hussein. The U.S. intelligence provided satellite photographs for the Iraqi military so that they could more accurately bomb their Iranian targets, and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that the wherewithal for some of the chemical weapons that were used by Saddam Hussein against Iranians and against his own people, the Kurdish people, that the wherewithal, the components of those chemical weapons came from Germany, from England, France and the United States.

So as the Iranians sort of list their litany of complaints against the United States, that ranks very high.

CONAN: And it goes back, as you point out, in this tit-for-tat that Americans and Iranians always engage in, the seizure of the U.S. embassy and the holding of the hostages for so long, the crisis that developed there, and the Iranians immediately cite their own outrage going back to 1953.

KOPPEL: In 1953, the British intelligence convinced their counterparts with the CIA that Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had been elected prime minister and who furthermore had committed the unpardonable sin of nationalizing Iran's oil industry, that he was dangerous not only to the interests of Great Britain and Europe but also to the interests of the United States because, said British intelligence, he was closely associated with the Tudeh Party, the Iranian Communist Party, and therefore was potentially a pawn of the Soviet Union.

Now, remember, of course, this was at the beginning of the Cold War, 1953, but the CIA and MI6 conspired with some of their Iranian allies to overthrow Mosaddeq. He was tried, he was sent to prison, I think was in prison for two or three years and then was kept under house arrest until he died.

And of course he was replaced by the man who was hand-picked by the British and the Americans, the Shah. And the young shah was placed in there and was in power, in fact, for 25 years until he, in turn, was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

CONAN: And which is where our story began.

KOPPEL: Which is where our story - where - at least where my part of the story began, that's right.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Carl. Carl's with us from Spokane in Washington.

CARL (Caller): Yes. Mr. Koppel, I have a question for you about - this relates to what the government has said is their intention on development of peaceful nuclear energy. And I'm just wondering, in your investigation or knowledge, what do the people of Iran want from their government? Do they want their government to develop nuclear weapons?

KOPPEL: Well, I must tell you it's an interesting question. I would have to say, based on absolutely nonscientific - just going around talking to people - and we traveled all over Iran and I raised the question with a lot of people - that the reaction we got was almost uniformly yes, they do. Not necessarily that they want nuclear weapons, but they do feel that they're entitled to have nuclear technology.

And some of them are even sophisticated enough to point out two things: one, they say - and I was just blown away the first time someone said this to me because he was a peasant in a farm area outside Isfahan, and I had picked the area we were going to; in other words, I told the driver make a left here, make a right there, now go straight, and then, okay, stop here, when we saw a bunch of farmers out in the - out in the fields, and they were spreading fertilizer. And the guy who owned this ten-acre lot, when I raised the question of nuclear technology with him, said, well, yes, we're absolutely entitled to have nuclear technology under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And he cited the NPT. I could hear him, even though I don't speak Farsi, when he was saying - he said NPT, and I thought, wow, this is - it's kind of interesting that a farmer out here in the boondocks would know about the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But their attitude is, A) we think we're entitled to it; B) we are surrounded by countries - Pakistan, India, Israel - who have nuclear weapons; we think we ought to be allowed to have nuclear technology. And then finally, they point out - those of them who know this or remember it or have heard it from some of the current leaders - that the United States and our European allies - 25, 30 years ago - were encouraging the Shah to develop nuclear technology.

So as long as we have someone in place that we felt was well disposed toward the United States and its interests, we had no - we had no essential problem with Iran having nuclear technology. It's just a question of who is running Iran, and that's not a, you know, that's not a minor point.

CONAN: Nuclear technology, though, different from nuclear weapons.

KOPPEL: Well, they have to have the nuclear technology before they can hope to have the nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Interestingly, though, you again spoke to an Ayatollah about - I'm afraid we're just leaving you a few seconds here - and thanks for the - much for the call, Carl - but you talked to an Ayatollah. Is there any circumstances under which Iran could use nuclear weapons, even in defense?

KOPPEL: Were you going to run the bite or do you want me to...

CONAN: No, I wanted you to summarize it in the next 20 seconds.

KOPPEL: I will summarize it very quickly. First of all, they were all saying under the Koran we could not possibly use nuclear weapons. And then this one guy said, however, our civilian leaders may find special circumstances under which they might.

CONAN: We're talking with Ted Koppel about his documentary, Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation. It airs Sunday night on Discovery. And we're taking your calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with Ted Koppel about his news special, Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation, which debuts on the Discovery Channel Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And you can hear more from Ted Koppel about the documentary later today on All Things Considered. If you have questions about Iran or about Ted Koppel's career, give us a call. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's play a clip from Day 40 of the Iran Hostage Crisis when Ted Koppel was reporting for an ABC News special at that time called American Held Hostage.

(Soundbite of ABC News broadcast)

KOPPEL: At a rare public appearance, the Ayatollah himself says neutral observers may soon visit the American hostages. And in Washington, the president said the national Christmas tree stays dark until the hostages come home.

ANNOUNCER: This is an ABC News special...

CONAN: Ted Koppel. Must take you back a bit. But I wonder, do you remember what it was like to report on Iran in those days and how it's changed?

KOPPEL: I was just thinking I looked a lot younger then, didn't I?

CONAN: Even on the radio.

KOPPEL: Even on the radio, exactly. Well, I was in Iran the first time in 1974 and I was over there with Henry Kissinger. I was diplomatic correspondent at the time and traveled with him and I remember how painful it was for him because he had a group of about eight of his state department correspondents with him and we were giving the Shah all kinds of trouble about his human rights record, and that wasn't exactly where he wanted to go and it wasn't where Dr. Kissinger wanted us to take it.

But then I was there in 1977 with Jimmy Carter - New Year's Eve - and it was, remember, just a few months before the Shah was overthrown, and Jimmy Carter raised a champagne toast in the Shah's palace, citing him as an island of stability in a troubled sea.

CONAN: Interestingly, when you got back to Iran this time around you spoke with some of the people who were involved in the takeover of the United States embassy back in 1979, and then for so many days thereafter, including the former spokeswoman for the Iranian hostage takers who became known to us as Sister Mary, and you spoke to her about the meaning of a famous term that - used in this day to describe the United States.

(Soundbite of ABC News broadcast)

KOPPEL: I first heard that phrase, the Great Satan, thinking, what a silly phrase. They don't really mean it. But you did mean it. You meant exactly that. You meant that the United States was, in a sense, the embodiment of evil.

SISTER MARY: I think that Imam made that reference to the United States based on the understanding that the Americans have no recognition for human rights and (unintelligible) their interests. The only thing that they see is to protect those interests by any means.

CONAN: Again, that woman among the hostage takers so many years on Tehran, Ted Koppel.

KOPPEL: Yeah, sure. Her name is Epticara(ph), and a few years ago she actually became the first woman vice president of Iran. She is not - she no longer holds that title. Interesting woman. When she was a child, she spent a few years in Philadelphia, hence that almost totally accent-free American English that she speaks.

CONAN: And interestingly, there are any number of one-time hostage takers who have used that to leverage their careers in Iran.

KOPPEL: Leveraged their careers, yes, but it hasn't always worked out that well for them. There is one young man - well, he's not that young anymore either, but he was a young then when he helped organize the taking of the U.S. Embassy and when he went through the gates himself and indeed became something of a national hero at the time. Then, just a few years ago, he started up a polling organization of his own and made the results of that poll available to the Gallup Organization, and the polls showed that 73 percent of the - certainly of the people that he had polled in the Tehran area - favored improving relations with the United States and maybe even reestablishing relations with the United States. He was tried on an espionage count or two for giving that information - it was charged not only to Gallup but to the CIA - and spent two years in prison, I believe nine months of which he spent in solitary confinement.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Amir. I'm a 25-year-old Iranian and live in Tehran. You may find this a surprise, but these days it's very difficult to feel the Arab anti-American feelings in Iran, especially among the youth. Unlike what the Iranian government tries to picture, many Iranians gravitate towards the U.S.A. Like any other country, what the president forcefully puts forward doesn't reflect Iranians' views on the U.S.A. and equally the whole world. We want to be part of the free market the U.S.A. champions, a world without terrorism.

KOPPEL: And that I would say reflects very accurately the feeling that I had. Indeed, what I just said to you, that 73 percent of the public polled indicated that they wanted better relations with the United States. I must tell you, Neal, that having spent almost two weeks over there, there wasn't a moment when I felt any personal animosity on the part of any Iranians toward me. In fact, more than that, there was sort of an air of amazement: My God, an American journalist, what are you doing here? But people could not have been nicer to us.

CONAN: An American journalist, and then on seeing the camera you have this - at least in one instance - one of the local guys that says, Oh, we've got a camera there, let's get a chant Death to America up, and everybody starts chanting death to America.

KOPPEL: Exactly. That was as they were coming out of Friday prayers. And I make the point, and you can see it in the faces - you can't, because you're on radio - but if you watch - if you watch on Sunday night you will see in the faces of the people coming out of Friday prayers - yes, they're chanting death to America because some guy has started the chant up, but there's not a whole lot of enthusiasm to it, and most of them are grinning at the camera. And just prior to and just after, they were giving sort of a friendly V for victory sign. And I don't want to minimize in any way the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would be. I don't want to minimize in any way what the intentions of those who hold real power in Iran may be. But I do want to make the distinction that I think your e-mailer was making, that the Iranian people I think would be only too delighted if diplomatic contact were reestablished and if, even beyond that, economic and trade contact were reestablished.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Manuch, Manuch with us from Sacramento.

MANUCH (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MANUCH: Okay. Mr. Koppel.

KOPPEL: Yes, sir.

MANUCH: I have full citizenship, and I just want to get your take on - don't you think our double-standard policy when it comes nuclear power (unintelligible) Israel or Iran or any other Islamic countries has - basically is the main source of trouble that we are hated in the world?

Mr. KOPPEL: Well, I wouldn't say that's the main source. I mean when, for example, you talk about an Islamic country with nuclear power or, indeed, I might add nuclear weapons, you have to include Pakistan. And even though Pakistan is a Muslim country and has nuclear weapons, U.S. relations with Pakistan are very good.

I take your point. And there are many in Iran who make that same point and say, wait a second. The Pakistanis have nuclear weapons, the Indians have nuclear weapons, the Israelis have nuclear weapons. Why in heaven's name can't we at least have nuclear technology or for that matter nuclear weapons?

Look, we, the United States, are essentially are no different than most other countries in the world. It all depends on whose ox is gored. If we feel that U.S. interests are threatened by a nuclear Iran - and I can easily understand why our leadership in Washington would feel that - we're going to say, yes, it's different than having nuclear weapons in the hands of the Indians or the Israelis.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Manuch. Here's another e-mail, this one from Peter. Nightline got its push from the Iran hostage crisis. The Daily Show changed its tenor to be more news-oriented and received a huge boost as a result after 9/11. Does this help explain how we're getting our news now?

Mr. KOPPEL: No, I don't think so. I think by and large most of the news now - it is true that when there is a huge national or international crisis, that people turn once again to television news. But by and large, two things. A) I think the younger generation in this country is drifting away from getting its news from television at all. With the exception, perhaps, of things like the Jon Stewart program, which, again, I always have to say I love Jon Stewart, I love his program. His program is to television news what an editorial cartoon is to the front page of the New York Times.

CONAN: And you graced that cartoon last night, I should say.

Mr. KOPPEL: I graced that cartoon last night and enjoyed it enormously, and I'm very fond of Jon and think he does a terrific job. By and large in this country, I am afraid that the greatest interest in news is in trivia and trash, and it is becoming more and more difficult to get important foreign policy stories on the air of either the major over-the-air broadcast networks - ABC, NBC, CBS - or, for that matter, on the cable networks.

CONAN: Let's get - this will be Stephanie. Stephanie with us from San Anselmo in California.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks. Mr. Koppel, it was so sad when you left the airways. You were such a reassuring voice. And I have a question kind of related to what you just said. I wondered if you felt that there was going to be a change in the honesty of mainstream news reporting now that Congress has changed somewhat, and if there would be less intimidation with the mainstream newspapers and less pressure to lay off investigative staff and things like that.

Mr. KOPPEL: Yeah. I think you're putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, if you'll forgive me. I don't think that the failure to emphasize those kinds of stories had anything at all to do with the fact that there was a Republican majority in Congress. And I don't think it will change because there is a Democratic majority in Congress.

The simple reality is an economic one, and that is advertisers will pay much more for a young demographic. And so the perception of the people who run the networks now - both in entertainment and in news - is that they have to cater to that younger demographic. And again, their perception is younger people don't want to watch anything about foreign policy or really serious domestic stories.

STEPHANIE: Well, we miss you terribly. So thank you for the good work you're doing now.

Mr. KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And there was - I have read, as part of your departure, your last deal - I think at ABC - I think you did four documentaries per year primetime?

Mr. KOPPEL: No, I did that a long time ago. I used to have my own production company and I would do documentaries for them. It was that tall, good-looking guy from Canada, Peter Jennings, who used to do four documentaries a year.

CONAN: But you said that you were being indulged and that Peter was being indulged and that the days of indulgences at the networks are over.

Mr. KOPPEL: Exactly. In other words, that doesn't mean that you won't still get hour-long specials. But they'll be hour-long specials on things that they perceive will get the largest possible audience. Not necessarily and hour-long special on what may be a really important issue before us today, as I believe, for example, knowing something about Iran is terribly important.

If on the one hand it is being described as whether it's the most dangerous or one of the most dangerous nations in the world I think is beside the point. It seems obvious to me that if they're that dangerous, we should know more about them, not less.

CONAN: We're talking with Ted Koppel. His new documentary airs at 9:00 on Sunday on the Discovery Channel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail that we have from Grant. And to what extent, in your opinion, does the government of Iran support financially or militarily Hezbollah? Does the Iranian street support these activities? If the street does support this terrorist organization, is it purely a reaction to Israel?

Mr. KOPPEL: The answer to your first question, is it - the government supports Hezbollah enormously and indeed there are contribution boxes for Hezbollah all over Iran. And the public supports them also.

We, that is the United States, the State Department, has listed Hezbollah as a major terrorist organization. You will not be surprised to hear that the folks in Iran do not regard it as a terrorist organization. They regard it as a liberation army that first was extremely effective in forcing the Israelis out of Lebanon and now is trying to help, among other things, the Palestinians establish a greater foothold on the West Bank and indeed for that matter even in Gaza.

It's the same as the difference between, you know, if you happen to support them, you call them freedom fighters; if you oppose them you call them terrorists.

CONAN: Yet at one point in the documentary, you're in a part of Iran where you say it's unclear as to who's in charge. You're speaking to the deputy governor of a province. And he gets in touch with somebody your translator describes as the faceless ones.

Mr. KOPPEL: Yes. And the faceless ones, I say, do you mean the Revolutionary Guard? And he says, yeah, but the faceless ones. And I said, well, you mean the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guard? And he says yes. And then he says, but they're talking to a guy whom we somewhat disrespectfully referred to the fat guy, because none of us could remember his name.

And it turned out that the fat guy had a great deal of influence with the local branch of Hezbollah. Now, this is in Iran, right on the border with Iraq. And I ended up interviewing him and he turned out to be a very well-informed man. And at the end of the interview, I said, look, I understand you have a great deal of contact with Hezbollah. Can you set me up to talk to some of the guys with Hezbollah? And he said, no, but you've already talked to the head of Hezbollah, because I am the head of Hezbollah in this region.

So one of the interesting things about Iran is it's always difficult to know who is really running the show in different sections of town. There are places where having a permit from the central government is absolutely and totally meaningless. The local folks couldn't care less.

CONAN: It's interesting. You lay out just a few - and obviously there's shade of gray - but the policy options at this point for the United States in Iran are few, and none of them are great.

Mr. KOPPEL: Well, I mean the policy options, I think, boil down to three. You have diplomatic relations, which have been broken between the United States and Iran for 26 years now. So there is the option of resuming at least some kind of diplomatic contact.

There is the option, which we have been using now for more than a quarter of a century, of trade and economic sanctions. And while those clearly do hurt the Iranians, they haven't hurt them to the point that they're really going to influence their behavior. And then the final option is the military option.

This past summer in Washington, there were many people - and people who well placed and highly placed among the military and the government - who were telling me that there was a real possibility that the United States might launch a bombing campaign against Iran. That was last summer. I don't think that is still really an option.

But again, if there are those in the government who still believe that that is a viable option, they need to look very carefully at the amount of influence that Iran has in Iraq today - and that influence, I would argue, is at least as great as American influence - the influence that they have through Hezbollah in places like Lebanon, and the influence that they have, last but not least, in Afghanistan.

And as one political scientist there pointed out to me, you know, we have a lot of levers where we can bring a great deal of pressure to bear on the United States.

CONAN: Can you stay with us? There's a couple more calls I'd like to get in.

Mr. KOPPEL: Sure.

CONAN: Ted Koppel's going to be back with us to take a couple more of your calls.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: And right now we're talking with Ted Koppel about his special broadcast on the Discovery Channel which airs at 9:00 o'clock Sunday night Eastern Time. It's called The Most Dangerous Nation: Iran. And we have a couple more callers for him, and let's see if we can them on the air.

This is Liz. Liz calling us from Harrisonburg in Virginia.

LIZ (Caller): Hi, Mr. Koppel.

Mr. KOPPEL: Yes, ma'am.

LIZ: You had mentioned the possibility of the U.S. supplying Iraq with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

Mr. KOPPEL: Not the possibility. The fact that U.S. companies sold Iraq the wherewithal, the component parts to make chemical weapons.

LIZ: Okay. I was wondering if you could comment on how the U.S. sales of weapons to Iran during the Iran-contra Affair might fit into the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Mr. KOPPEL: Actually, probably very little. You know, if you really want to know about American weapons going to Iran, there was a 25 year period when the Shah was in power, and when the price of oil was going up - and they used to call those petro-dollars - the dollars that were just flooding into the Persian Gulf to buy the oil from there. And what the United States did as a means of trying to sop up those petro-dollars was to sell as many high-tech weapons to the Iranians as the Iranians could afford and were willing to buy. The entire Iranian air force was made up of American planes, and U.S. technology was sold by the billions and maybe even tens of billions of dollars.

CONAN: I think there's a class or a subset of Spruins(ph) class destroyers that were awarded by the Shah with all the bells and whistles. Not even the U.S. Navy got some of them. And they're known as the Ayatollah class, 'cause they were kept in the U.S. Navy since the government was changed before they were finished.

Anyway, Liz, thanks very much for calling.

LIZ: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye bye. Let's go to - this is Gus. Gus with us Grants Pass in Oregon.

GUS (Caller): Thank you, Mr. Conan.

CONAN: Sure.

GUS: Mr. Koppel.

Mr. KOPPEL: Yes, sir.

GUS: I've been a fan of yours for a long time, and I was wondering if you could comment on this. I've been doing a lot of research into Iran lately for obvious reasons, and a lot of the information I'm finding suggests that there is a disconnect between the general population and the government, in that the general population, especially the urban population around Tehran is generally very well educated, their cosmopolitan and they're sophisticated and they are not as - and in general they have a lot of pro-Western feelings, whereas the - and they don't feel that their government respects them or reflects that they're, you know, what they're political views really are. In other words, there's a disconnect, that the government is a lot more conservative and unsophisticated and uncosmopolitan, if you will.

KOPPEL: Yeah. No, I think...

GUS: Are your travels reflecting of that?

KOPPEL: Yes. And the broadcast reflects it. I think - I think your perception is absolutely correct. The dangerous thing is if people are expecting that urbane and sophisticated population to rise up in a revolution against their government, I think they're smoking something a little stronger than an ordinary cigarette. I don't think that's going to happen. But you are quite correct. The Iranians are urbane, they're intelligent, they're sophisticated, they're cultured, and many of them don't really appreciate their government. They're quite open in their criticism of President Ahmadinejad, but there is a red line you don't cross in Iran, and that is you don't go after the Supreme Leader, you don't criticize the Ayatollah Khamenei. So yes, I'm sure there are many people in Tehran who really wish that the control of the mullahs would be diminished over there, but they're going to be very careful about how they express that.

GUS: Would you say that that was a function of the religion or is it just a social artifact?

KOPPEL: It's both. I mean first of all, for the past 26 years religion - you know, Iran today is a theocracy. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is run by the mullahs. And that is something we can never forget and never overlook.

CONAN: Gus, thanks very much for the call.

GUS: Thank you very, very much.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, thanks for much, and for bearing with us a couple of extra minutes to take those last two calls. We appreciate it.

KOPPEL: Not at all. And is it really Neanderthal?

CONAN: I think so, because it's a German word, I think.

KOPPEL: Oh man. You know, you learn so much on this program. Neal, thanks very much.

CONAN: Ted, thanks very much. Good luck with the broadcast.

KOPPEL: Bye bye.

CONAN: Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation airs Sunday night at 9:00 PM Eastern Time on the Discovery Channel.

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Koppel: Inside Iran, 'The Most Dangerous Nation'

Ted Koppel in Jamkaran mosque in Qom, Iran. i i

Ted Koppel in Jamkaran mosque in Qom, Iran. Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/Discovery Channel hide caption

itoggle caption Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/Discovery Channel
Ted Koppel in Jamkaran mosque in Qom, Iran.

Ted Koppel in Jamkaran mosque in Qom, Iran.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/Discovery Channel
Koppel in front of the former U.S. Embassy Wall in Tehran. i i

Koppel in front of the former U.S. Embassy Wall in Tehran. Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris hide caption

itoggle caption Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris
Koppel in front of the former U.S. Embassy Wall in Tehran.

Koppel in front of the former U.S. Embassy Wall in Tehran.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris

More on the Documentary

You can find more information about the documentary, which premieres on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, at the Discovery Channel Web site.

Village elder Jaafar Hosseini with workers near a rice field outside of Isfahan i i

Village elder Jaafar Hosseini with workers near a rice field outside of Isfahan, Iran. Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris hide caption

itoggle caption Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris
Village elder Jaafar Hosseini with workers near a rice field outside of Isfahan

Village elder Jaafar Hosseini with workers near a rice field outside of Isfahan, Iran.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris

In the midst of the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program, journalist Ted Koppel spent three weeks speaking with people around that country.

In his documentary, Iran — The Most Dangerous Nation, Koppel reports on how Iranians view the policies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and what lies at the root of decades of deep-rooted distrust between Iran and the United States.

Koppel's reporting experience with Iran stretches back to 1974; most famously, he covered the U.S. embassy hostage crisis in 1979.

Today, he characterizes the U.S.-Iranian relationship as "tit for tat, grievance for grievance."

For example, while the United States criticizes Iranian support for terrorist organization such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranians talk about U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Koppel notes: "What horrifies U.S. policy makers is the prospect of Iran armed with nuclear weapons. What if they used them against the Israelis, or just gave them to their Hezbollah surrogates in Lebanon."

In the new Discovery Channel documentary, Koppel travels to the border of Iran's border with Iraq, the ancient capital of Isfahan, the holy city of Qom and the Persian Gulf.

He talks to Iranians from all walks of life — businessmen, dissidents, former government officials and ordinary citizens — to hear their thoughts on their country's leaders, nuclear ambitions and relations with the rest of the world.

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