Q&A: Mary Louise Kelly on navigating Iran after Soleimani’s death

Mary Louise Kelly, center, in Tehran. Photo by Marjan Yazdi

To paraphrase Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, all countries are complicated in their own way. Iran’s tricky for the unpredictable nature of reporting there. You could be thrown in jail, like countless local journalists, or like Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post, who was imprisoned for 544 days on charges of espionage and propaganda. Or you can roam about Tehran with relative freedom. There’s no way to predict how it will unfold, so you line up security contingencies and hope for the best.

Mary Louise Kelly of NPR got lucky. She landed in Tehran on the morning of the funeral procession of Major General Qassem Soleimani, whose slaying by the US brought the two countries to the brink of war. For five days, she managed to interview senior officials—including a sit-down with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who told Kelly that the US “will pay for that grave error”—as well as lots of ordinary Iranians, without interference.

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As a general rule, foreign journalists like Kelly, who report above the radar on a short-term visa, won’t encounter undue hassles. They can go out for dinner without minders. They can speak openly with regular Iranians. They can even travel to another town, with permission.

But many visa applications are denied, and the reporting environment can become more sensitive for those stationed in the country, as per Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times’ longstanding correspondent. His accreditation was revoked without explanation in February 2019 and has not been restored. Iranian colleagues come under far more pressure. State media is heavily censored and independent journalists can face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

NPR knew there was a risk, but Kelly’s paperwork was in order, and other foreign reporters were on the scene. Editors kept channels of communication open throughout her stay and assessed the precautions in place. “We don’t take anything for granted,” Larry Kaplow, the Middle East Editor on the International desk, says. Kelly spoke with CJR about her coverage, and her interview with Zarif. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When we finally got the interview, I was thinking, ‘What exactly are we going to do in those 10 minutes? If they yank him, what is the first thing I want to get out of it?’

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How did you manage to land as the story broke?

This was my first trip to Iran. I had wanted to go there for some time. I started asking for a visa in the spring of 2019 as tensions were heating up between Iran and the US, and then on New Year’s Day I got word that our visa might be a go. It was to cover a conference related to security in the Gulf. We scrambled, we were all set to fly on January 3. The night before, the news broke that General Soleimani had been killed. My producer and I wondered if Iran would still let us go. This obviously marked a massive escalation in the tensions. And we were not sure NPR would let us go; the security situation did not look as good as before for American journalists.

 

Did you face hostility?

Anti-American sentiment was running high. I’ve never seen a crowd like at the funeral procession—hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets. They were chanting “Down with America,” and holding signs saying, “Death To the USA.” People tugged at my sleeve, asking, “Where are you from?” I felt unsafe because the crowd was so huge and tightly packed. At one point we got swept away from our photographer. People were passing strollers over their heads so that they didn’t get crushed. I was linked elbow-to-elbow with the translator and the producer. We spoke to everyone we could. We identified ourselves, and I was amazed how many people wanted to speak to us. When we interviewed people on the sidewalk outside the mosque for Friday prayers, others would line up to talk to us. Their access to social media is limited, so when they see a Western reporter with a microphone they want to be heard.

One time a huge guy nearly swept me over, and two others moved in to steady me. They touched their hands to their hearts and were incredibly respectful. It’s so weird. They were shouting “Death to America,” and then went out of their way to say, “We’re mad at your government. We hate Donald Trump, but we’re not mad at the American people.” We had people shouting in the microphone how angry they were against America’s leaders, but it was never directed at me personally.

 

Were you under surveillance?

In Iran, you go through a media-support fixer company. They check on your visa and serve as the interface between you and the government. They issue you the press card, and they assign you your interpreter. That person greeted us in our hotel and was with us whenever we asked. She helped us book calls and interviews. We were free to go on our own if we didn’t need an interpreter. I needed help with interpreting, so we had her with us a lot of time. She was not telling us what to ask or who to interview, but you never quite know what is reported back. We were completely transparent about who we interviewed. If we wanted to go to someone’s house or interview someone who spoke English, we were free to.

 

How did you get the interview with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif?

NPR had had a confirmed interview, but it was going to be later in the week at the UN. When a story popped on the Monday that the State Department might be blocking his coming to the New York, it occurred to me that I should try to get him in Iran. I put out texts and, on Tuesday, I got him at the sidelines of this conference.

 

What was he like?

He was very smooth. His English is excellent. It didn’t particularly surprise me that he would declare the killing of the general an act of war or an act of terrorism. I got to push him on the nuclear deal and what Iran’s response would be to the killing. I was curious whether this ramping up of the confrontation would impact negotiations on prisoner swaps. I really wanted to know if that channel was still open.

 

What did you find most challenging about the interview?

It’s always a challenge with officials, anywhere, to try to get past their talking points and get something real or new or revelatory. But my primary goal was to push him to help Americans understand what the Iranian perspective is.

I suppose the principal challenge was that we spent more time on the logistics of trying to get the interview and less on what we were going to ask. When we finally got the interview, I was thinking, “What exactly are we going to do in those 10 minutes? If they yank him, what is the first thing I want to get out of it?”

 

What was it like reporting in Iran as a woman?

Our Iranian photographer and our interpreter and producer were all women. I often feel that it’s an advantage being a woman when reporting in a Muslim-majority country. You have access to half the population that a male reporter would not. Women were feisty and outspoken and flagging us down to talk. As an all-female team, we were able to go into this intimate space, a beauty salon in wealthy area. The photographer unveiled in front of me for the first time. Another woman was getting her hair roots touched up, and she said, “No, no one wants to talk about politics.” It was an incredibly human moment.

There’s always the goal of questioning people in power. We got to do that. But a major goal of our coverage was to bring the voices of Iranians to Americans. So often, what we hear is coverage of the nuclear deal and of relations. But this was to remind Americans that there were real people with lives, who focus on milk in the fridge and gas in the car.

 

What’s the mood like?

On day two of our coverage, I had arranged to interview a professor from the University of Tehran. My goal was to discuss US-Iranian relations and the future of the nuclear deal. It turned into something richer than simply sitting with an analyst. We met him in a bustling coffee house where people were drinking tea and smoking shisha. It was packed with really happy people on a night of a birthday party. Life goes on even with horrendous things unfolding.

 

Can you avoid serving as a propaganda tool?

When questioning an Iranian official, you are getting spun, for sure. You’re unlikely to knock them off spinning a line. The best you can do is ask clear and tough questions and follow up. The challenge is when, once you hit pause, they will say a lot more. I wanted to convey that in our reporting—that they are not free.

 

How did you know the translating was truthful?

The interpreter appeared to be doing her absolute best to translate the questions and answers accurately and thoroughly.  Sometimes in North Korea I’d ask a question and the interpreter would say, “That’s the wrong question.” Or the person would go on and on and the interpreter would say, “He said, ‘No.’” That did not happen in Iran. We had an Iranian-American combing over the interview at the NPR headquarters making sure we got it absolutely right.

 

What’s your takeaway? 

My takeaway is how much I want to go back. None of the stories I wanted to do had to do with plane crashes and missile strikes. We were always going to get the voices of women on air, and the impact of sanctions and the relations between Iran and the US. There are a ton of stories that I want do in order to capture this complicated and fascinating country.

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Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at Columbia. Her latest book, How To Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need, publishes May 19.