FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Dispatches





Editors' Notes

Pakistan Blog



recent posts

Interview With Sharmeen Obaid-Chinnoy

Pakistan's Taliban Generation

Bangladesh: The Mystery of a Mutiny

Afghanistan: A Hard Fight

Cambodia: Confronting Its Past

Pakistan: An Unsettling Peace

Zimbabwe: A Harsh Reality

Virtual Gitmo: Human Rights in Second Life

At Siemens, Bribery Was Just a Line Item

Mumbai: Eyewitness to the Attack



April 2009

March 2009

February 2009

January 2009

December 2008

November 2008

October 2008

September 2008

August 2008

July 2008

June 2008

May 2008

April 2008

March 2008

February 2008

January 2008

December 2007

November 2007

October 2007

September 2007

August 2007

July 2007

June 2007

May 2007

April 2007

March 2007

February 2007

January 2007

December 2006

November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

August 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

December 2005

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005


RSS Feeds

Iran: The Red Line

Iranian women in conservative dress.

Women gather at the shrine of Ayotollah Khomeini on the 18th anniversary of his death.

The clock is ticking. Less than 12 hours until I need to be on a plane out of Tehran. I've just been told politely by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that I won't be getting the visa extension I'd expected. So I am on overdrive, trying to cram the last of my interviews into a sleepless night.

In those final hours, what I most want to know is how I can describe Iran's "red line." That's the slippery, ever-changing boundary that dictates what Iranians can and cannot say. I realize I have no idea what that line looks like. Is it wavy? Is it straight?

So I am sitting in the office of a newly launched magazine, Fekr-e-rouz, with a journalist who has had his share of run-ins with the Iranian government.

But Nader Karimi can't tell me what the red line looks like, either. Karimi has had two stints in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where political prisoners are often held.

"I internalized the red line," he says of his time behind bars."So I know what to write and what not to write."

"I internalized the red line," he [Nader Karimi] says of his time behind bars. "So I know what to write and what not to write."

I've come to Iran on a journalist's visa in the midst of what's been called the biggest government crackdown on dissent in two decades. While I didn't plan to focus my reporting on human rights or politics, it's the crackdown itself that quickly emerges as the most urgent and intriguing story on the ground. Iran has recently detained four American citizens and charged them with espionage. Human rights advocates say the Iranian government is holding three of those citizens -- who are dual Iranian nationals -- incommunicado.
They're also concerned about eight university student activists who are being held without contact with attorneys.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government is clamping down on the media.

In recent weeks, Iranian news outlets have received letters from intelligence officials banning a host of topics. Journalists can't write about the enforcement of Islamic restrictions on dress or the effect of United Nations sanctions on everyday life.

Western news outlets are also under pressure. Journalists who work with the foreign press tell me they've been warned that they could get their offices shut down if they write about sensitive issues.

Pilgrims from every province in the country make the journey to Khomeini's shrine.

But the media landscape is not all bleak. While issuing these restrictions, the government has also allowed for the re-opening of some banned reformist publications. It's this kind of confusion that makes it increasingly difficult to see where the red line lies inside Iran.

One paper, Shargh, was banned last year after it ran a cartoon mocking Ahmadinejad. The other paper, Hammihan, was shut down seven years ago by the hardline judiciary after the publication called for improving relations with the United States.

Karimi says the reopening of these papers shows a desire on the part of Iran's ruling hardliners to allow a small space for the opposition to vent, as public support for Ahmadinejad wanes.

Part of what's so confusing about the red line here is that there are no clear rules, Karimi says. One day, you'll get away with writing a story that's critical of the president's economic policies. The next week, the same story could land you in jail.

One veteran Iranian journalist tried to send me clues about the situation by showing up at a meeting one day with a novel about Stalinist Russia. It was "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Alexander Solzhenitsyn's account of political repression in a Gulag.

"You see," he said. "This is what we're facing now."

It's the arbitrary nature of arrests and detentions that journalists say keeps them in a constant state of fear.

"This is not North Korea," Karimi says in that last interview. "There is some semblance of democracy here, isn't there? There is some freedom of expression."

Karimi says the reopening of these papers shows a desire on the part of Iran's ruling hardliners to allow a small space for the opposition to vent, as public support for Ahmadinejad wanes.

There is indeed. A range of people -- from housewives, to maids, to university students and artists -- have expressed surprisingly frank opinions to me.

Inside their homes and sometimes on the street, ordinary people feel
comfortable criticizing the president or even the country's political

Karimi says it's a question of tone.

"The way you word things is more important than what you say," he says. "And what you say is not important."

"And it would take me maybe 20 years to get that tonality down?" I ask.

"Yes, exactly, it would take you 20 years," he says.

Of course, I don't have 20 years. I have 10 days. And I'm not even
close to getting my tone right.

Mother with daughters.

Robab (center), a mother of four, voted for the Iranian president but says she's not happy with rising inflation.

The Iranian government has done their best to guide me in my reporting. I've been warned not to ask too many questions about the crackdown. I've been told that asking the wrong questions could get my trip cut short or my visa revoked. Foreign journalists cannot operate on their own in Iran. In order to work in the country, we register with a quasi-state agency, which provides me with a government-approved translator.

All of this makes for a rather paranoid atmosphere.

"You know your room is bugged and the safe in your hotel isn't safe," a foreign correspondent based in Tehran tells me when I pay her a visit.

Getting my trip cut short isn't my main concern. The larger question is what will happen to the people I interview after I leave. Iranians have been warned not to consort with Americans. It's not just dissidents who are at risk. Those activists I do interview have been in prison so many times, it seems they're now designated dissidents. I worry more about university professors whom I'm interviewing for a story about women's health or the young artist who takes me out to a party to meet his friends.

In the end, it isn't my tone that insures I won't be able to stay in Iran. It's likely the substance of the question I ask the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The government invites me to a special press conference for foreign journalists on my fifth day in the country. The other journalists are from Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq and other Muslim countries. They are here for the commemoration ceremony marking the death of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayotollah Khomeini. They ask about Iran's role in the region and touch on the nuclear issue. But no one asks the president about domestic affairs.

Reporter Jessie Graham at a press conference in Iran.

Reporter Jessie Graham is flanked by journalists and the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a press conference in Tehran.

When it's my turn, I ask the president to comment on the charges against the four detained dual nationals and the student activists.

The president says this is an issue for the judiciary and that the courts will handle these cases fairly. An Iranian journalist later tells me that the moment I ask that question, the authorities make the decision not to extend my visa.

My question does little good. The president doesn't say anything about the detentions that could qualify as news. But he later offers a poetic quote about what Iran would do if the United Nations imposes a third round of sanctions for Iran's nuclear program.

"Some say Iran is like a lion sitting calmly in the corner," Ahmadinejad says. "We advise them not to play with a lion's tail."

That's the quote that makes the headlines that day.

Jessie Graham is a radio and print journalist who covers international issues. She traveled to Iran for BBC/PRI's The World and FRONTLINE/World. The trip was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Related Links

Iran clamps down on dissent
Listen to Graham's corresponding radio report from Tehran for PRI's The World.

Iran: Going Nuclear
In this FRONTLINE/World broadcast from 2005, Paul Kenyon travels inside Iran to report on the country's nuclear ambitions.

Forbidden Iran
In this report from 2004, FRONTLINE/World reporter Jane Kokan secretly filmed shocking evidence of the torture and murder of Iranian students and journalists opposed to the regime.