FRONTLINE/World and BBC reporter Paul Kenyon traveled deep into Iran with U.N. inspectors to uncover the secrets of Iran's most sensitive nuclear facilities. He spoke by phone with FRONTLINE/World Web site editor Sara Miles about diplomacy, deception and his own detention by Iranian security forces.
FRONTLINE/World reporter Paul Kenyon.
You're a veteran investigative reporter -- you even had your own show, Kenyon Confronts, on BBC television, in which you went undercover to look at everything from identity theft to abuses in the Catholic church. What is it that draws you to this kind of work?
As far as I'm concerned, the worst thing in the world for a journalist is winding up in a press pack listening to an official briefing. I really love doing international investigations off the beaten path. It's the challenge of getting the stories nobody else can get, talking to the people nobody else can talk to. And -- as with this story -- reporting on issues that are really going to make a difference in the world.
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?
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
Iran's underground nuclear enrichment plant, Natanz, is guarded by
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.
Still, you were able to find out a great deal.
Here's how it works: under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
[NPT], each member state is supposed to share its peaceful nuclear
technology with the rest. In theory, that means advanced countries,
such as America, should be assisting the rest, Iran for example,
since all countries have a right to develop nuclear energy programs.
The U.S. sanctions imposed since the Islamic revolution mean
that hasn't happened. So Iran went to the black market, built
a multimillion-dollar nuclear program and decided not to declare
significant parts of it. When it was discovered last year that
Iran had been deceiving the world, the Iranians said, essentially,
that they kept a secret because they knew everyone would be
suspicious that they were building a bomb.
Now, America wants Iran referred to the U.N. Security Council
as soon as possible. All that's preventing that from happening
are three European countries who believe there's still mileage
in diplomacy. The U.K., France and Germany, in negotiations,
have persuaded the Iranians to temporarily suspend their nuclear
Paul Kenyon joins Iranians at a gathering to hear President Mohammed
But the Americans and Israelis are becoming impatient. There's a worry that these protracted negotiations with the Europeans are simply handing time to the Iranians to build a bomb. Iran has the centrifuges required -- those they say are for making nuclear fuel -- and they have the missiles to launch bombs. And basically, if you have everything you need for nuclear power, you are close to the ability to make a nuclear bomb; you can easily use a lot of the same tech to make weapons-grade uranium.
You have great interviews with Iranian diplomats involved
in some of these nuclear negotiations. They come off as very
direct, and Sirus Naseri in particular seems honest and forthright
when he says they're not building a bomb. But then why did Iran
hide what it was doing for 18 years?
There's a contrast between the way Iranians behave and speak
and the way Americans and Europeans do. The Iranians are blunt
and straight talking, while the Europeans tend to speak in flowery,
ambiguous diplomatic language.
I thought Naseri was charming and incredibly bright, with a great grip on the subject. He's shrewd, apparently honest and was very keen to get the message out that Iran has the right to make nuclear fuel.
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. The Europeans persuaded
the Iranians to suspend their enrichment program. But there
was still a fundamental difference of opinion: the Europeans
want it to be a "permanent suspension"-- in other words, a cessation
-- and Iran will not abandon its program. Naseri has made that
Political and often anti-American in
sentiment, graffiti is a common sight in the streets of
So what did this charming diplomat mean when he said, "Don't play with fire"?
I'm certain this didn't mean the Iranians want to be aggressive toward anyone. But I think they are saying, "hands off; don't meddle in our country's affairs, because we won't just sit back and take it." I also think he means don't play fast and loose with international laws, and that once you remove the right from Iran -- or any country -- to have a nuclear program under international scrutiny, it begins to change the way the world looks at nuclear power.
So does that mean the world just has to live with a nuclear Iran?
Well, from the Iranian point of view, really, how dare the world tell them they can't have something that they have an absolute international right to? They ask, why do we treat Israel -- which also has concealed its nuclear program -- in a different way? Perhaps they are looking at the example set by Pakistan and India. Those countries were told they couldn't develop nuclear weapons, but they did, pretending they were only developing nuclear energy, and as soon as they had nuclear weapons they were welcomed into the club. And, you've got to ask, would America be making threats against Iran if it had a nuclear weapon? Probably not.
What about the saber rattling from the American side? Do
you buy the view that Iran is the "next Iraq"?
During a rally on Iran's annual Revolution Day, Iranians display a
puppet of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Well, America has made veiled threats, as have the Israelis. But former CIA people have told me that regime change in Iran, through U.S. military force, is not an option, and I think it's unlikely this will get to air strikes, since there are still diplomatic possibilities. They [the United States] could take it to the Security Council, though the question remains of what the council can do. More sanctions are unlikely to work; as the Iranians say, they've already experienced every sanction the world can throw at them. So, then you start ratcheting it up -- what's the next lever the U.N. can use? A United Nations official told me, "We need to say, 'If you don't stop your nuclear program, we are going to do x,' but we still haven't decided what x is."
You got an exclusive look at the situation on the ground. Let's talk a
bit about how you got into Iran.
We were honest to the authorities about saying what we wanted
to do. My team -- a researcher, a cameraman and I -- were given
visas. Once we were in Iran we were told we couldn't film inside
nuclear facilities, just outside, which was very disappointing.
We tried to put pressure on, and got a meeting with the vice
president of Iran, who said it was OK for us to film nuclear
facilities but reiterated it must be just from the outside.
But then the first place we turned up at with the [United Nations]
inspectors, people came out of the facility and tried to arrest
us. We said that we had permission from the vice president,
and they said the security forces wouldn't allow it. I didn't
know before we got to Iran how much the security forces control
the nuclear stuff.
And the security forces were not happy about having investigative reporters around.
On our own, without the inspectors, we went to a place called the Kalaye Electric Company, which had been mentioned in a report as possibly being a nuclear site. We managed to find it, but the staff there called the security services straight away. They then tailed us for the next 10 days. In other countries, you get assigned an official "minder," who points out to you what you can and can't film. In Iran it wasn't clear. We got conflicting messages from government people and from the security services. I would say it was a bit disturbing to know that you were being followed everywhere.
What was it like when you attempted to leave the country?
Paul Kenyon was followed by Iranian secret police while reporting
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 -- not that long ago, 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.
Did the interrogation continue?
Yes, for about four hours. They kept asking us what was on our tapes, where we had filmed, what we had done. I felt as if they were trying to goad us, but I knew if I lost my temper, they'd take us to the police station, and then nobody would know where we were. Finally they took all our tapes and sent us back to our hotel. After a couple of days, the security forces contacted us by phone and told us which flight to take. They gave us back about seven out of 25 tapes -- everything we had filmed outside of Tehran; everything filmed with U.N. inspectors was gone.
You must have been in despair.
Well, no, because actually we had already made copies of some
of the key material. I felt the mood was changing while we were
there, and things were so unpredictable. We regularly copy our
footage in countries like Iran. Our cameraman left the country
before us and took the copies with him. For some reason, they
didn't stop him, so there was no deception involved. He just
walked straight through.
Iranian security services prevented
the FRONTLINE/World crew from filming at this location,
the Kalaye Electric Company in Eastern Tehran. By the time
the U.N. inspectors were given access, the facility had
been completely renovated.
When we finally got on the plane, we felt disappointment more than anything else. Disappointment that we had wanted to show Iran's perspective on the whole situation and that they had made things so difficult for us. But of course, if you came to the U.K. or the United States and filmed nuclear facilities, what do you think would happen? You know, lots of countries would arrest suspicious people taking pictures of sensitive nuclear plants.
What are you planning to do next?
I'd love to do more on Iran, though it's unlikely they'd ever allow me back. But the world needs to know more about the situation, particularly from their point of view.
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