TOPICS > Politics

Three Decades After Revolution, Iran Remains Mystery

February 16, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Thirty years after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the country remains a complicated nation torn between its tradition and its future. NPR's Steve Inskeep discusses what he found on a reporting trip to the country.
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GWEN IFILL: For most Americans, what happens inside Iran remains a mystery. For Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio and the listeners of Morning Edition, some of that veil has been lifted. Steve recently spent two weeks reporting in and around Tehran and is here to tell about his travels and his conversations.

Steve, welcome.

STEVE INSKEEP, National Public Radio: Glad to be here.

GWEN IFILL: So when you decided to go to Iran, a place many people only have visions about or ideas about, including many reporters, what did you expect to see?

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, the first thing I wanted to understand was how open Iran was going to be to a new relationship with the United States, but I didn’t want to just approach that by asking various leaders. I wanted to understand what people on the street were thinking and saying about their daily lives. And I wanted to get the best sense that I could of what is described as a closed society.

I found it, I think in some ways, a little more open, at least to me, at least at this moment, than I might have expected and got into a lot of fascinating conversations with people.

GWEN IFILL: Most Americans would expect when you say closed society, something repressive, something threatening.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, there is repression, there are threats. Newspapers are closed if they print the wrong things in Iran. Iranian journalists or Iranian-American journalists, for that matter, I think are pressured in a lot of different ways, expected to give information to intelligence services. Americans can be thrown out of the country. We’ve both had colleagues who’ve had that experience.

At the same time, there are times when free and open debate is allowed. And there are times when a journalist can go around the country and explore things and ask a lot of questions. And we were lucky that on this occasion we were able to do that.

Iranians reluctant to talk politics

GWEN IFILL: As you were able to do that, do you have a sense that people were trying to restrict what people would say to you or people were editing themselves?

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, people edit themselves. And that was one of the challenges. If I just went up to people on the street or at a business, which I did as much as I could, some people would say, "You know, I'll talk about the economy. I'll talk about my life or my business. Don't ask me about politics."

There were other people, though, that were eager to tell their stories. And there was a young couple, both of them 24, planning to get married. They were shopping for a wedding ring when I saw them, a wedding ring they couldn't afford. And they were actually joking about it and saying, "I have to tell you, the economy is very good."

But even as they were joking, they were perfectly willing to tell the basic facts of their lives, that it was going to be hard for them to get married and afford an apartment, because, while this is a very wealthy country in some ways with a lot of oil, the economy has a lot of problems.

GWEN IFILL: Yet you talked to a 70-year-old woman who was far more forthcoming about this very same topic.

STEVE INSKEEP: She was after a little while. She spoke to me twice. She came and said, "Everything is pretty much fine, and my son and I get along. My son supports me as a taxi driver." And then she came back a second time and said, "The economy is terrible and anybody who tells you otherwise is a liar," even though she just told me that, which is, I think, classic, Iranians tell me, classic of the kind of situations that people get into.

And she did take us to her apartment. And it's just a simple story of struggle. The woman is not starving, but she can't afford much meat. The woman is not homeless, but she's -- you know, she's an elderly woman and she has to climb five flights of stairs to the cheapest apartment. And she wants a somewhat better life and is very frustrated in trying to get it.

Deep scars from war

GWEN IFILL: As you talk about this, you talk, also, and you wrote about the images of martyrdom around the country. So do they look at martyrdom as something that's driven by Iran's role toward the U.S.?

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, well, let's try to define "they." The government -- if that's the "they" -- they use martyrdom as a way to inspire the people, as a way to keep the people behind them. And they did go through -- the country did go through a terrible war with Iraq, which is partly blamed on the United States, because the United States supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed.

And Iranians are constantly reminded of the people who were martyred, of the children who went to the front and were killed in that war. People are constantly reminded of that. And that is used as a way to say, "Now you must obey us. You must obey the government that brought you through this. You must obey the war veterans." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, surviving war veterans. You must pay attention to them. And those images are used as a matter of control.

I think it's a more complicated story for the people themselves, seeing those images on buildings and billboards and so forth.

Ahmadinejad considered hard-liner

GWEN IFILL: So if Ahmadinejad is known as being very anti-U.S., very much kind of at odds with the U.S., no matter who is in charge at the moment, does that mean -- does that trickle down at all to the regular Iranians you talk to on the street?

STEVE INSKEEP: This is said by almost every American visitor to Iran: Iranians are delighted to meet Americans. Even Iranian officials who want to give us an earful of how they disagree with American policies and have disagreed with 50 and more years of American policies, even Iranian officials will be very welcoming and delighted to chat with Americans.

I think that there is a great interest in America. There's a great interest in American culture. It's not hard to find American music. It's not hard to find movies that are welcomed in the West. It's not hard to find Hollywood movies there.

GWEN IFILL: So who are the hard-liners?

STEVE INSKEEP: Ah, the hard-liner. Well, who is anybody? There was a great Economist article that was published not long ago that referred in passing to "whoever runs this country thinks," and it is hard to figure that out sometimes.

But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the supreme leader of Iran, he's more important than the president and more powerful than the president, is considered a hard-liner. He was around for Iran's revolution. He's the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, whose face still appears everywhere, that scowling face that anybody who was alive in the '80s remembers or in 1979 would remember. And he is considered a hard-liner.

Ahmadinejad is considered a hard-liner, the current president. A lot of the other people around them are considered very conservative on issues that we might be concerned about, like the rights of women, but are considered pragmatic, people who might be willing to deal with the United States.

And what people do who are political analysts or diplomats or politicians in Tehran frequently is go around listening to, sifting through public statements and gestures of these officials to try to figure out what in the world various officials do think and who really is in charge.

Freedom kept within limits

GWEN IFILL: How does Tehran compare to other cities in the region that you covered over the years?

STEVE INSKEEP: It's wealthier, for a start. It's cleaner. It's more orderly than anything you'd find in Afghanistan next door, for example. It's safer than anyplace or most places, let's say, that you'd go in Iraq. It seems more orderly in many ways than Pakistan, which is also a very large country, its neighboring country there.

It is restricted in many ways, not perhaps as restricted as some Muslim countries, and we should be fair about that. There are strict Islamic rules. There are morals police on the street. But there's a certain degree of freedom to ignore them.

But I have to emphasize that freedom is always kept within strict limits. If you say the wrong thing, if you offend the wrong person, you can be in deep, deep trouble in Iran. And part of the way the population is kept under control is, you're never entirely sure where the lines are or who you might offend.

GWEN IFILL: Steve Inskeep of NPR, thanks for taking us along on your travels.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, delighted to do it.