MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This year, the morning of January 1, began with a message on my phone. The sender was an Iranian diplomat in New York, and he was writing to say my request for a visa had been approved. My producer and I were free to travel to Iran. Well, we pretty much dropped everything and landed five days later in the middle of the night in Tehran.
One month later, Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker received a similar message. He landed Tehran in early February, just as, we now know, the coronavirus was spreading through the country like wildfire. Filkins writes about that and about whether the regime will survive that and other crises in this week's magazine. Dexter Filkins joins me now via Skype.
DEXTER FILKINS: Hey.
KELLY: Let's start with coronavirus. When you arrived in February, was it on your radar? Was it on the radar of Iranians who you were out and about interviewing?
FILKINS: Yeah, it was on the periphery. I mean, it was kind of already, you know, going great guns in China. But the government in Iran wasn't talking about it. The people on the street were definitely talking about it, and there was a lot of nervousness. But it was - like so many things there, there was more than one reality.
KELLY: We went back and looked at the timeline and found the first reported deaths in Iran were February 19 in the city of Qom. But you open your piece with an interview you did with a doctor who'd been asked to consult on this baffling case - a patient who'd been wracked with a mysterious virus. And that was back in December.
FILKINS: Yes. It was two doctors, actually, and they were both in the city of Gorgan, which is in the north. You know, at first, they had no idea what they were looking at, but they kind of put this stuff together after the fact. And just as you described it, people started coming into the emergency room with some terrible disease that was advancing rapidly through their body and then killing them.
And they at first didn't know what to do. And as they reported these things to the health ministry, they were told to stay quiet. And that kind of progressed as more and more people got sick and more people died. It was like, keep a lid on it. Don't say a word.
KELLY: They also told you they had been ordered not to wear masks, not to wear any protective clothing. Why?
FILKINS: They said, look; we're afraid of alarming people. We're afraid of causing a panic. These doctors were pretty angry about the whole thing. And also, in my piece, as I was able to interview some reporters there - some Iranian reporters who - we're hearing the same things. And we're basically told to keep quiet. Don't write about this. Don't ask the wrong questions.
And so when Iran - I think it was February 19, as you say - finally reported two coronavirus deaths for the first time, there was this kind of outbreak of bitter laughter in the newsroom in this particular news outlet in Tehran - remember they said, oh, my God; we've - we're the only country in the world where we've reported a coronavirus death before we even reported any diagnoses.
KELLY: The backdrop to all of this is this power struggle to figure out who will run the country after Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who, as you note, is 80 years old. He's been in charge since 1989. What were you able to glean in terms of the struggle to succeed him and whether it is playing out more openly than it might have in past?
FILKINS: It's the question that is on everyone's mind there. What happens when the 80-year-old supreme leader dies? - which could be - you know, might not be for a decade, but it could be anytime. I think what was made clear to me and what - I had a fascinating conversation with an Iranian who is in touch with many people in the Revolutionary Guards and inside the government - was he said the struggle to succeed Khamenei has already begun.
The way he described it was fascinating. He said, look; for 30 years, Khamenei has kind of personalized all the institutions of the state. He's put his own people in charge all the way down - up and down the ranks. They're everywhere. And he said it's like a solar system. And he said, you know, what happens to a solar system when you take the sun out? Chaos.
And I think that's what's on everybody's minds. When he dies, do we get an orderly succession? It's supposed to be like picking a pope. There's a kind of orderly process. But could it get out of control? And I think that's the real fear - is chaos.
KELLY: Well, where does the relationship with the U.S. fit into all of this? When I was in Iran in January, it was during those days when it seemed as though Iran and the U.S. might be on the brink of war. That had calmed down a little bit by the time you visited. But what calculations do you think Iran is making as, here in the U.S., we move towards a presidential election?
FILKINS: You know, the U.S. looms so large there ever since 1979 and the hostage crisis. But I think more important today is that the economic sanctions which have been imposed on them are crippling, and they're crushing the economy. And those are led by the Trump administration, which, you know, backed out of the nuclear deal and then reimposed them. And that has made them stronger than ever.
And it's really hurting the economy in a way that it never did before and - even to the point where the Iranian government recently just went to the IMF, the International Monetary Fund - who they've been calling, you know, an American stooge for the last 60 years - and asked for several billion dollars to basically bail them out. So one last anecdote which really struck me was, you know, you have these nationwide demonstrations in November all across the country - riots. They got very violent.
KELLY: You're talking about November 2019.
KELLY: Those were the protests after President Rouhani raised gas prices, and it sparked protests all over Iran.
FILKINS: Yeah. Yes, exactly. And the government killed a lot of people to put them down. And the most popular chant that crowds were crying was, America is not the enemy; the enemy is here. Imagine that. I mean, this entire regime was founded on a kind of enmity towards the United States, and now it appears increasingly the Iranian people are kind of throwing that back in their face.
KELLY: You're prompting me to want to ask you for the story of how your visit ended.
KELLY: You close the piece by describing what unfolded at the second checkpoint in the Tehran airport as you're waiting for your flight to be called.
FILKINS: Oh, man. I went and saw an ambassador from a Western country before I went to the airport. It was, like, the last thing I did. And that ambassador said to me, it's the second checkpoint at the airport you need to worry about. And sure enough, you know, I breezed through the first one. Everything was fine. You know, they stamped my visa.
Man, when I got to the second one, this really creepy-looking guy, like, put his arm on my shoulder and said, we've got some questions for you. And they took me into this room, and it was this tiny room. There were six guys, and they were all really big - no chitchat, no smiling, no jokes.
KELLY: But you were on your own. You don't have any colleague or anybody with you.
FILKINS: Yeah, I got nothing at that point. And immediately, the guy - this guy was, like, right out of central casting. He was - you know, his shirt was too tight, and he was kind of sweaty and not very nice. And he said, we've been watching you, and you've been visiting unauthorized sites. You've been photographing unauthorized places. You've been seeing people you're not supposed to see. And he just started going through this stuff. And I - you know, my concern was - it was sort of less what was going to happen to me than what would happen to the Iranians who were brave enough to meet me and...
KELLY: Absolutely - who don't have any plane ticket out of there.
FILKINS: Exactly. Exactly. Like, I get to go home, you know? I think as it turned out, they didn't figure it out. I took a lot of precautions. I mean, I stripped everything off my phone - everything. I sent my notes out. And knocking on wood here, I got out, and I think everybody got away, too, safely.
KELLY: That's Dexter Filkins. His letter from Iran appears in the latest New Yorker magazine.
Dexter Filkins, thank you.
FILKINS: Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARK BARROTT’S "SCHOPENHAUER'S GARDEN")
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