TERRY GROSS, host:
It's been difficult to get news from Iran because the government has forced out foreign reporters. But after the government revoked the press passes of foreign reporters, my guest, Roger Cohen decided to take his chances and stay and continue covering the protest against the election results until his visa expired. He had been in Tehran since early June. He returned to New York last week. Cohen told me he took the risk of staying in Iran because he thought it was important to bear witness.
Mr. ROGER COHEN (Columnist, The New York Times): I have never witnessed anything quite like it; three million people moving through the streets in silence. Whenever there was a murmur they would say, sokut, sokut, which is Farsi for silence. And they had their arms raised. They were making the "V" sign for victory.
This was not a narrow response to the election. This was not a bunch of students or a bunch of North Tehrani rich kids. There were students and shopkeepers, old and young. I saw people on crutches. And this was a massive and immediate response to what was perceived as this fraud. And I was deeply moved. I felt that I should go on as long as I could. I didn't go into hiding. I stayed. I was in a relatively little known resident hotel but, of course, they could've found me if they wanted to.
I did write to the head of the Ministry of Information press office on the day that my press pass was revoked and expired and I asked for a renewal. I mean I knew it was for naught but I wanted to have the record that I had done that and I got neither a rejection nor, of course, an approval. I just got silence. So in that silence I figured I'd carry on.
GROSS: Okay. So you've described a massive and peaceful demonstration. But the atmosphere changed as the demonstrators were attacked by the Basiji(ph). Why don't you describe what it was like to be in the middle of one of the demonstrations that were - where the demonstrators were tear-gased and clubbed.
Mr. COHEN: The atmosphere got steadily worse and it changed with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's vitriolic sermon of the Friday after the election. That was exactly one week after the election. He used Friday prayers to call all the foreign media agents of subversion to tell Mousavi that if the street demonstrations continued the blood would be on his hands, to side unequivocally with Ahmadinejad.
And as, you know Terry, the supreme leader in the setup created by Khamenei, the supreme leader has traditionally sat above the fray. But has the - sits literally at the flank of the prophet so his authority is divine. So when he says there will be blood on the streets, it in effect gives divine sanction for bringing that blood to the street. So on the Saturday, tens of thousands of people - not millions, tens of thousands defied the Ayatollah Khamenei's words and went out in the streets. There was a massive security presence and I saw women being beaten and club. One I remember particularly vividly limping toward me and then we tried to comfort her and she turned around and she wanted to go back into the heart of the demonstration. I myself got very badly tear gassed, just walked into this - I wasn't sure it was smoke or tear gas. It was tear gas. And I was kind of choking and there was a whole bunch of people next to me were choking. We kind of dashed down this alley of (unintelligible) Revolution Avenue. And one of the signs of the massive support for the protestors into Tehran, and there are many, but one of them was always that doors were flung open in houses for people in distress. And we ducked into this hallway where an older woman had made a little fire in a bowl. I wasn't aware of this before but fire smoke, smoke from a fire, actually dispels to some degree the effects of tear gas. Everybody was putting their head over this little fire, over the smoke. And pitched battles, garbage on fire, alarms going off, windows getting smashed, police eddying back and forth.
One of the interesting things that day was that the city police, dressed in their green uniforms, were actually being quite friendly. And I heard one pleading with a protestor in front of him just saying, look, I have a wife and kids too. Please just go home.
GROSS: Did you have any close calls yourself while you were in Iran?
Mr. COHEN: Well, I did at this demonstrations that I described in running, running from police, beating people while being tear-gassed. And yeah, that was, that was very unpleasant. But I wasn't shot at while, although I heard gunfire. But it was a very emotional and draining experience, especially in the last five or six days, when I felt a tremendous responsibility. I mean the chances these days, given communication and the interconnected world we live in, the chances of being almost alone as an American journalist, you know, on a story of those dimensions - just because everybody else had had to leave - are extremely remote.
But, you know, it happened. And, you know, so I really hardly slept the last five or six days. And I feel, I feel a connection with Iran. And you know, Iran, Terry, has aspired - it had the first democratic revolution in Asia in 1905. And it was demanding something called a constitution. And so it was called the Constitutional Revolution against the Qajar dynasty, and intermittently ever since Iranians have looked for some form of liberal democracy.
And I think the tragedy of Iran is that these two currents - the one, the very strong profound Islamic faith of the country; the clerical current, if you like, and the liberal democratic current, which is equally strong, there's no reason ultimately that they shouldn't coexist. And you know, the Islamic Republic has had some very significant achievements. But as these recent events demonstrate, it has not finally been able to get those two forces into some balance that brings Iranians together and overcomes the pain of exile of millions of Iranians and draws the country toward, you know, its potential, which is, which is huge.
GROSS: My guest is Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. He covered the protest in Tehran after the election. So you had decided to stay in Iran until your visa ran out, even though your press pass was revoked, as all foreign journalist press passes were. When your visa was up, that meant it was time for you to leave. But when you left, then people examined your visa and your passport. They'd see your name and for anybody who was following this, they'd know you were the reporter who was illegally getting information out from Iran back to the United States. So did you leave with some trepidation knowing that you could be arrested on your way out?
Mr. COHEN: I did. Yeah, and I was given an extremely bad time at Khomeini airport. Looking back, I think I was so exhausted that I wasn't really as alert as, you know, as I might have been. But I was, yeah, I was - it was very unpleasant, it was quite humiliating. I mean, you know, I was virtually strip searched. And five minutes was devoted to the examination of each pen. And yeah, it was pretty horrible. But…
GROSS: Did you think you weren't going to get out?
Mr. COHEN: I didn't know, and I was also, this sounds ridiculous, but I was worried, you know, my visa expired at midnight and my flight was at three in the morning of the following day. And this search went on for so long that I was worried that, I mean, come two minutes past midnight, they could say I had overstayed my visa. You know, which given everything else just sounds almost comical, I guess.
But knowing Iran the way I do, I knew that I didn't want to get my passport stamped any time after midnight. Because - and anyway, in the end I got my passport stamped at maybe four minutes to midnight. So the whole thing was, yeah, I was very tense and it was very unpleasant.
GROSS: So when you were done with that unpleasant experience and you got on the plane - what were you thinking?
Mr. COHEN: I was, you know, I think I was not in fact relieved, which maybe I should have been. I was upset. I thought quite seriously about staying. But then I thought about Nazila(ph) and other colleagues and what might happen and, you know, also of course what might happen…
GROSS: You'd be putting them at risk.
Mr. COHEN: Yes, and - well, I also thought of course about what might happen to me. There have been other journalists arrested at that point who disappeared from view. And I was talking to my wife, who has, you know, pretty long experience at this point of me in war zones. And I told her I was thinking of staying, and she was pretty smart. She didn't say anything. She just said, well, when you make up your mind let me know. And - but of course I knew what she didn't want me to do. So in the end I left, but - well, I left thinking it was unlikely that I'd get back any time soon. And I left just feeling I was betraying the people whose acts I'd been writing about.
GROSS: I'm curious who was on the plane with you when you took that 3:00 a.m. plane out of Tehran. Was it people who were feeling endangered and trying to get away or - like who were the other people?
Mr. COHEN: I don't know. I mean there were bunch of very sleepy people, it being 3:00 in the morning.
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GROSS: All right.
Mr. COHEN: So you know, basically Lufthansa put the lights out and everyone, you know, tried to sleep, and I slept myself, actually. I was just exhausted and drained. But I think there were some, you know, there were some business people, there were, you know, there's a huge Diaspora, millions of people. Khomenei globalized Iranians, and as you know, there's a large community here, particularly in California, but also very large communities in Britain and Germany. And I was on a - of course there are no U.S. flights into Iran. And I was on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. And I think there were quite a lot of German-Iranians, you know, who'd gone back to see families. The flight was - it wasn't full. It was maybe two-thirds full, if that.
GROSS: You said before that in a way journalism is a young man's game, you know, like when you get the call to go to Lebanon in the middle of the night. It's one thing if you're 25, it's another thing if you're, you know, 40 and you have a family. And I'm wondering, I mean - you're married, you have children. I'm wondering if you didn't expect to conduct this kind of journalism, you know, in a country like Iran when you're officially banned from reporting there at this stage in your career, this stage in your life.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it was a bit of a shock, Terry. You know, as a columnist you just choose where you go. So I feel, strange thing to say, but I feel fate just kind of drew me into Iran this year and it hasn't really stopped from the beginning of the year. And now I have that feeling that I had after Bosnia, that you know, there's something kind of welling inside me that I, you know, will still have to get out somehow, which probably means a book. But you know, I haven't moved forward into that yet.
But one thing about journalism is that it can always surprise you. And I think I wrote in one column that, you know, we're supposed to be hardened and able to move on and we're just voyeurs. You know, we look at one story, then we look at another. And I think every now and again we just get ambushed by a story. And I've certainly been ambushed by Iran. And your subject turns the tables on you and has you in its grasp rather than you deciding when you want to move on.
GROSS: Well, Roger Cohen, thank you very much for talking with us and thank you so much for the reporting that you did from Tehran.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you.
GROSS: And for sticking it out there as long as you possibly could. Thank you so much.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Terry. Great to talk to you.
GROSS: Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times. You can download podcasts of show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.