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.