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?