When political unrest erupted in Iran earlier this year in the wake of a disputed presidential election, Borzou Daragahi had a front-row seat. Born in Iran, the former Pulitzer Prize finalist is now the Beirut-based bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Daraghi reported directly from Iran on the post-election protests, and since leaving the country in June due to security concerns has continued to cover developments there.
While on vacation in New York City recently, Daragahi stopped by Columbia University to speak with journalism students. Afterward, he spoke for a few minutes with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx. An edited transcript appears below.
Greg Marx: Is there reason to think there might still be a major change in the political leadership in Iran?
Borzou Daragahi: It’s totally unpredictable. We’re in completely uncharted terrain. And anyone who claims to be an Iran expert and makes that prediction is a fool. But what is kind of easy to predict is that this is weakening Iran on the international scene. This is weakening the hardliners’ ability to make demands on the West over its nuclear program.
GM: The divide within Iran is often presented as between moderates and hardliners, but it seems as though Ahmadenijad and Khamenei may have different interests or different constituencies. Is that the case?
BD: Sure, but it’s not that much. They’re overlapping. There’s not a lot of space between those two guys. Khamenei sometimes tries to play a game where he distances himself slightly from the other guy, but I think it’s a game.
GM: So essentially they’re bound together?
BD: Well at this point, after this whole post-election unrest, they’re bound together in blood, because if one goes down, the other goes down as well. Unfortunately for Khamenei, his credibility has been damaged by this.
GM: There was a story in another paper recently about the Revolutionary Guard coming to play an even larger role in politics and running the state.
BD:It’s an old story. What more can you say? The Revolutionary Guard is an elite military branch that is led by hardline ideologues who have many business and financial interests and have been growing in power since the early nineties. Any new development in that front is incremental.
GM: The role of social media was obviously one of the big stories of the protests, and you’ve mentioned how you would use online video to keep track of events. One of the things that happened on the U.S. side was people like Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney using that to do as much as they could to cover the story. Was that a resource for you at all?
BD: I never knew about Andrew Sullivan or Nico Pitney or any of these people until I left Iran, because all those Web sites were filtered out. But without a presence on the ground, you’re very, very, very limited. The LA Times has sources in Iran—we have friends of the LA Times, long-time friends. This is the advantage of having a real news operation, we have people who have been going into Iran with the LA Times brand for decades. That makes a big difference. We have built up sources, contacts, relationships with officials even.
GM: Since you left Iran in June, you’ve been operating mostly from Beirut. How much does it compromise your reporting not to be on the ground yourself?
BD: It makes it tougher. But you know, I’ve been going to Iran so much for years and years and years. There have been many spells where I didn’t go to for Iran for six months. I don’t know, I haven’t been there in a few months—maybe I’ll go again in December.
GM: You think you’ll be able to get in OK?
BD: I’ll have no problem getting in; I have an Iranian passport. Getting out is the hard part. Will they let me out? Will they lock me up or something like that? Hopefully not.
GM: The coverage that has come out has tended to be focused on Tehran. How difficult is it to get a sense of what’s going on elsewhere in the country?
BD: It’s really tough. What’s great is when people who are at the demonstrations or events videotape themselves in cities like Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and other smaller towns when events happen.
GM: So that’s basically your best resource for that sort of material?
BD: I mean, we hear stuff all the time. But if I don’t see it on video, I don’t report it.
GM: Can you speak a little more about the effect that this unrest will have on nuclear negotiations?
BD: We wrote a story to this effect, saying that this unrest will make it so that Iran will make no bold moves, either to downscale its nuclear program, or to radically upgrade it, because of the changed domestic climate.
What the hardliners typically do is make some outrageous move on the international scene, and then they get stronger from the negative reaction from abroad. So Ahmadenijad says something about the Holocaust, all the Europeans and Americans stand up and scream at him, and this crisis is created, and then he gets stronger and more people really around him, because he can say “we’re under attack.”
But the domestic situation now has made it so that it is unpredictable as to whether the people will rally around him. Will they, if the U.S. bombs Iran’s nuclear sites? Six months ago I can tell you yes, people would have rallied around the system, rallied around the flag. But now, it’s unpredictable.
So our prediction, in this report that we had, is that Iran’s not going to do anything. It’s not going to stop enriching, but it’s definitely not going to increase its enrichment levels.
GM: Are there any persistent misconceptions about Iran that you feel need to be corrected?
BD: Things have changed—the whole image of Iran has changed, because of this green movement. And this lively, colorful, civil society that us journalists have been talking about for years, all of the sudden everyone sees it. It’s like—Look, this is what we were saying!
And people are relatively well-informed now. I think the really funny part is I’ll get an email from a plumber in Ohio saying, “I don’t think Rafsanjani’s doing that. I think he’s up to something else. I think your analysis is off.” Now everyone is following Iran news like it’s the NFL season. So I think that’s more interesting, how suddenly well-informed people are, rather than the other way around.
GM: Last question. You talked about how unpredictable the situation is. Going forward, are there any identifiable crisis points or tipping points, where we’re waiting to see how something plays out?
BD: The problem that the opposition movement has now is that they don’t have any good leaders, and that makes it hard. Think of Lech Walesa with the Solidarity movement in Poland during the eighties—you had a figure who was a relatively charismatic and strong-willed guy in the prime of his life leading this movement. In South Africa, you had Nelson Mandela—for God’s sake, what a great person to lead a movement. In India, you had Gandhi!
And if there’s anything lacking, it’s that. That’s going to be the interesting thing to see: whether a leadership will emerge, and whether they can pull anything off without a competent leadership.