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Iran: Going Nuclear

paul kenyon

In this week's broadcast, the last of the current season, FRONTLINE/World and BBC reporter Paul Kenyon travels to Iran with U.N. inspectors to uncover the secrets of Iran's nuclear program. To give you an idea of the obstacles Kenyon and the inspectors faced, we've posted excerpts from an interview with Kenyon here. You can read a full account of his investigation and other features on Iran's nuclear ambitions on the Web site when the show airs, Tuesday, May 24.

This story was a challenge on a couple of fronts: Nobody had ever been able to film U.N. inspection teams visiting nuclear facilities -- and then you also had to get access from the Iranians. How did you do it?

KENYON: To get access to the nuclear inspectors took months...we had many, many meetings at the United Nations in Vienna [at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters] explaining that we wanted to film a team at work. Finally, these people, who had never spoken to the press directly before, chose the BBC to tell their story. The agreement was that inspectors would talk with us about their work and what it was like in Iran, but then when we'd put the camera on them they found it incredibly uncomfortable. To tease information out and get them to talk was difficult. I'd turn on the camera and ask a question, and one or another of them would freeze. "We can't talk about that," he'd say. "No, no, the Director General said we can talk," another would say. I tried to keep reassuring them that they had permission from their agency to talk with us, but their habits of discretion died hard.
As for the Iranians, what our program set out to do was offer a look at the Iranian point of view: that Iran has an absolute right to a nuclear energy program, under the nuclear non-proliferation agreements. We got visas and permission to film because Iran wanted to present its perspective. But when we got there they changed their minds about the access...

...Do I think Iran actually has weapons? There is no smoking gun, there's no evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons. But there's obviously a pattern of behavior, which has led to suspicion. It's a fact that they deceived the world for 18 years. They say they did it because of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which is a reasonably plausible explanation. Of course, the Americans say that if Iran had been open and asked for help they might have helped. That seems unlikely to me. In any case, Iran's bottom line is that they will not abandon their nuclear program. They've spent millions and millions on it; they have vast natural deposits of natural uranium, and they want to be an exporter of nuclear fuel; they feel that they're abiding by the law, and that there's a double standard for them.

What was it like when you attempted to leave the country after filming?

We got to the Tehran airport at about three in the morning with all our tapes and notebooks, got through customs and immigration, and were sitting in a large room waiting for the flight. Suddenly a door opened and about half a dozen guys in black suits started running straight at us shouting "BBC! BBC!" and pointing at us. It was scary -- only a year before, a Canadian journalist had been beaten to death in Iranian detention, and we had no idea what would happen. You find your legs shaking.
So they opened our cases, started throwing our stuff around. There were six guys, apparently from the security services, and they confiscated our phones and told our translator to leave. I was really worried, protesting through our translator that we needed him to be able to communicate, and one of the men laughed at me. "Mr. Kenyon," he said, "We all speak English."
I was presented with a weird kind of social etiquette question: do you laugh back, or don't you? I decided to be completely formal. "Why don't you speak English with us, then?" I asked.
"We hate the English," he said.
Finally they took all our tapes and sent us back to our hotel.


Sean - Los Angeles, CA
As an Iranian, it's a shame to see how these people treated you.