Talking Shop: Bill Berkeley

Thoughts on covering Iran from a reporter who’s done it

For insight on covering the protests in Iran, we spoke with veteran foreign correspondent Bill Berkeley, who has reported four times from Iran for a book he’s writing about the surviving kidnappers from 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. He also covered Africa for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Republic, among other publications. He spoke about the changing nature of Iran’s political landscape and urged caution and skepticism for reporters covering this story.

Katia Bachko: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s actually like to report in Iran? What’s it like to be a Western reporter working there?

Bill Berkeley: Everything about Iran is unpredictable, including what it’s like to report there. A danger of reporting in Iran is that it can be so deceptively open and people can be so deceptively amenable to talking candidly that you begin to let your guard down.

The situation is always evolving. I use the word “kaleidoscopic” to describe Iran. If you imagine a kaleidoscope, positions and conditions are constantly changing, and you’ve got to be on your toes all the time, never more so than now. I should say that the times I’d been there were much calmer and quieter than now. But on my last trip to Iran I was on a journalist visa, and I had to leave the country in haste. The foreign ,inistry called me and said, “Get out of the country as soon as possible for your own good.” And within very short order, word spread like wildfire to stop talking to me, and my appointments were cancelled, and I left the country the next day.

KB: How possible is it for reporters to understand what’s happening inside the power structure?

BB: Particularly for an American, it’s very opaque, it’s very difficult to follow. But, there are a lot smart Iranians—one of them I just had coffee with—who’ve been following this for years and who can at least speculate with some degree of sophistication about the various interests at play. A lot of these characters at the top have been in power for a long time.

For example, I just learned that one of the main political backers and strategists of Moussavi, the opposition candidate, is a guy named Ali Akbar Mohtashamipou. He was the original founder of Hezbollah in Lebanon. When we look at it from afar, we see the seemingly moderate candidate backed by a huge popular uprising in favor of democracy and women’s rights and rule of law and such. But actually, the cast of characters surrounding him and his own background are steeped in the early years of the revolution and the war with Iraq. It’s a very complex picture in which all the characters have been shifting alliances and shifting positions for years, and it’s very hard to get a grip on it from afar.

KB: So you’re saying it’s not as simple as the good-guy-versus-bad-guy narrative that we’re seeing in the media?

BB: That’s my sense. Just to give you an example of how hard it is, a particularly stark example: The New York Times ran a profile of Ahmadinejad; the headline was “Leader Emerges With Stronger Hand.” It was all about how the leadership at the top, the hard-line leadership, seems to have unified and consolidated its control. And that’s the real upshot of this election. A day later, they ran a profile of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad—how their interests play out and who’s aligned with whom. In the focus on the protests, I’m not getting a hell of a lot of insight into what’s going on at the very top, and how this thing may play out politically.

I was actually pleased to see a profile of Khamenei on the front page of the Times the other day. It’s the kind of thing that should have appeared years ago. But exactly what his interests are and how that plays out in juxtaposition to the popular uprising, I’m looking for a clearer picture than I have right now.

KB: Can you give me some historical context for how we should be thinking about this?

BB: The obvious precedent is the revolution itself. If you look at the images that we’re seeing now, so many of them are these huge crowds. These images look identical to crowds in 1979, and look where that led. Therefore, the question of popular uprising now—overwhelmingly this is nonviolent so far, and I think its sympathetic. But, there’s a precedent to be wary and we’ve seen that uprisings the world over don’t always yield enlightened leadership. The kinds of power dynamics that come into play and the kinds of characters who excel in a chaotic and sometimes violent environment, they don’t always lead and become enlightened rulers. Even if they want to be, they can’t be because they’re surrounded by and attacked by violence. The old McDuffian logic—the more blood one spills, the more compelled one is to spill more blood. That’s the kind of dynamic we’ve seen the world over throughout history, and certainly plenty written in the Middle East.

But the 1979 revolution itself in many ways a sympathetic revolution widely supported by Iranians across a broad spectrum. As soon as the old shah was defeated, it turned out nobody really had any bright ideas about an enlightened order to follow. Competing factions fell upon each other and we’ve had nothing but depression and cruelty ever since.

KB: Talk to me about these allegations of election fraud. Will we ever know if it was committed?

BB: [This] would be a great thing for reporters over there to try to systematically address: Exactly what is the evidence of fraud? The evidence so far is mostly deductive rather than documented. And the deductive evidence, as you may be aware, the numbers just seem completely unlikely—both in terms of the overall two-to-one victory announced while some people where still voting, that was highly suspicious, but also in regions where the opposition candidates came from. They lost in their own home regions, including Moussavi himself and Karubi. Not only did they lose, but they lost overwhelmingly in their own home regions. Certainly there’s a lot to suggest that it’s highly problematical.

At the same time, whether or not it’s easy to conclude that Moussavi would have won without fraud, that’s a harder question for me to know anyway. Part of the reason that led us to think that maybe Moussavi could win was coming out of north Tehran and Tehran itself and not from the rural areas, not from poor districts, where most of Ahmadinejad’s support comes from. A lot of Iranians will say that it’s certainly conceivable that Ahmadinejad won the election or would have won a run-off. But the overwhelming two-to-one victory seems highly unlikely.

There has been some good reporting on this online. Juan Cole has published a fairly comprehensive piece on how he views the evidence of fraud. Laura Secor did an intelligent blog post for The New Yorker, asserting that it looks fraudulent. Exactly what is the scale for the fraud, whether or not it reversed as a result of the election, is harder for me to know for sure.

KB: So, do you think that Western journalists gave too much play to the possibility that Moussavi could win based on limited sourcing within Tehran, and not enough outside the city?

BB: I hesitate to say that, because there are thousands of people in Tehran, and the Western press is reflecting the passion of the people in the streets. Exactly how representative people are is harder to gauge. Clearly hundreds of thousands of people are shocked and appalled. When you form an impression that there was a huge wave of support for Moussavi, who were your sources? And like most people, they talk to people in their circles and their social class, their neighborhoods. So, I do think, as always with Iran, if not everywhere else in the world if not certainly Iran, a measure of caution, a measure of skepticism, a measure of detachment is in order.

KB: What should someone who is coming into report in Iran know about how the country operates?

BB: The key is having a trustworthy and politically savvy Iranian fixer. You don’t just parachute in, as an American certainly, and start reporting on the ground. People won’t talk to you unless you have a reliable Iranian fixer. I think that most people have said that in this particular period around the election, there has been more openness. And there usually is. There’s been a kind of an opening up of the space for political opinion. Having said that, most will also say that Iran compared to most countries in the Middle East has a robust political discourse. It’s been periodically cracked down on and people have to be cautious, but one of the big surprises that every Western journalist finds when they get over there is that it’s more open than you expect.

People are more critical than you would expect, far more so than most parts of the Middle East. A famous line from Journalists Without Borders is that Iran is the largest prison in the Middle East for journalists, meaning there are more Iranian journalists in prison than anyone else—and that’s true, sadly so. But one reason for that is that there are more Iranian journalists actually producing journalism that threatens the regime, or irritates the regime. There’s a long history of dissent in Iran, and a long history of struggle for democracy and rule of law going back a century, and that’s one of the things that’s surprising about Iran and its reflected to some extent clearly in protests that we’re seeing.

KB: For people who are doing analysis here, are there things they ought to keep in mind because they’re not on the ground?

BB: Sometimes you can see things more clearly from afar from when you’re on the ground. From afar, you can get a bird’s-eye view that’s harder to get on the ground. The words of caution are that it’s really important to be skeptical, and important to be cautious about where events are headed and how representative the images are that we’re seeing and how representative people are who are demonstrating. It behooves everyone to be skeptical and cautious. It’s a very unpredictable situation, it’s a very complex situation, it’s a multidimensional situation, and it looks—from afar, anyway—as if everyone involved is improvising, everyone involved is confused and anxious, and it’s a hard situation to speak authoritatively about.

If you follow the coverage, one term that’s coming up very little is Islam, and how little all this has to do with religion. I think overwhelmingly, this is a point I’ve had for a long time, going back to the revolution, trying to understand Iranian politics. There’s an overwhelming sense conveyed by the American media, the Western media, that the way to understand this is to understand Islam. That Islam explains something. And my conclusion and my own reporting is that Islam explains very little.

Exotica explains very little, and one of the biggest mistakes journalists can make covering a country like Iran is dwelling on exotica and imaging that exotica, in this case Islam, is a helpful identifier for understanding why people are behaving the way they do. The exigency, the universal power, and the money that comes with power is what drives politics in Iran, as elsewhere. And that’s what needs to be focused on. Follow the money, understand the power, understand political interests, and leave Islam aside. I’ve argued that dwelling on Islam can obscure more than it illuminates.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.