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NOW on the News
9.15.06

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Maziar Bahari on the Similarities Between U.S. and Iran
9.15.06

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: I want to welcome our listeners to the podcast on Now On PBS, my name is Maria Hinojosa, and this is the second of our wonderful podcasts here on Now On PBS. And we're pleased to have Maziar Bahari with us on the line from Tehran. Welcome to our podcast Maziar.

MAZIAR BAHARI: Thank you.

HINOJOSA: You are in Tehran right now. Where exactly are you sitting at this very moment, Maziar?

BAHARI: Actually I'm at my mother's house.

HINOJOSA: And is that downtown Tehran?

BAHARI: Yeah I had lunch here, yes it's well, it's yes, north of Downtown Tehran.

HINOJOSA: Okay so let me ask you one quick question, Maziar, do you think that this conversation between you and me, an international call between two journalists, do you have a sense that it's kind of typical that a call like this might actually be listened on by your government officials?

BAHARI: It can be, it's possible. I mean, the government officials here they don't listen to conversation as much as the government officials listen to conversation in the United States. But, it's possible that they are listening to our conversation, yeah.

HINOJOSA: What does that do for you? Does it I mean, is that kind of normal par for course, and you just say what you want to say on a phone? Or, do you then hold back, consider what you're gonna say when you're on this kind of a call?

BAHARI: Well, you know, we have learned, I mean, we are brought up with certain rules and regulations. And, we know that we have to observe certain red lines and not cross them. But in general I think in countries like us, governments like— to have the idea of fear in the country more than do something, you know? So, they don't mind, people think that every conversation is tapped. But I don't think that they tap as many a conversation as what I'm hearing from my friend in the US that, you know, especially the Muslims that they say that all their conversations are tapped, and they are always asked to go to the FBI offices, they are questions for no reason.

HINOJOSA: So, you mean that you feel as if some of your Iranian friends and family in the United States may be feeling like they have more surveillance on them than even you in Iran?

BAHARI: Yea, definitely, yeah. Yeah. And I don't feel that— that's what people tell me, you know? Because, I have a couple of friends who are like real estate brokers in California, and they were telling me that they were just called in by the FBI. And, you know, these guys, you know, are rich Iranians with no fundamentalist, or even religious background whatsoever. But, because they are just Iranians they were called in. And I know even a Jewish guy, were Jewish Iranian guy in Long Island, he was called in because he was Iranian.

HINOJOSA: Wow.

BAHARI: So fortunately we're living in maybe two very similar countries.

HINOJOSA: Strange, did you ever imagine that you would be saying that?

BAHARI: Yes I did actually. I was traveling in the states about two years ago, I was driving in Texas, and the amount of churches I saw in the US was really surprising to me. And, you know when you talk to people in the US, you feel that they are really religious. And maybe Iranian and America, they are two most religious countries. And maybe America is the most religious country in the world.

HINOJOSA: Wow. Let's get to a little bit of the news. And we do want to continue with kind of opening our listeners' eyes and ears to your life in Iran, and in Tehran as a journalist. But, let's talk about the latest news. There's been quite a bit of news this week in terms of the back and forth between our two countries. What is the latest that we heard was that your President, on his way to Havana— to meet with President Fidel Castro, said that perhaps he would be open to new conditions to resolve the nuclear standoff. We heard some movement on the part of Condoleezza Rice, than the White House kind of backing off on that, what are you hearing in Tehran about any possible movement on this issue?

BAHARI: I think there are sighs of a compromise between both sides— between three sides, basically, between Iran and Europe, and Iran and the United States. And, actually, I have an article on Newsweek's website this week which about the conspiracy theory du jour in Iran, which is that Iran and America they have reached an agreement whereby Iranian government is going to compromise on certain aspects of its nuclear issue, and the American government is going to give up probing into Iranian human rights issues or freedom of expression. And there are signs of it that, you know, make you think. You know, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but like the criticism of Iranian human rights abuses in the past, maybe, two, three weeks, have greatly mildened by the US. You know, we had a prisoner killed in prison, political prisoner killed in prison last month, and it was strongly condemned by the United States government. But last week we had another prisoner killed and there was there were no talks of that person. And there's a new wave of crackdowns on Iran on freedom of expression and arresting people. And you rarely hear about that in the US or in Europe right now. So people are thinking, yeah, people are thinking that, you know, there might be I mean I'm not saying that there is a deal really, but that's the feeling that people have in Iran. That, you know, human rights and freedom is expression is just an excuse for the West primarily for the US to pressurize Iranian government on political issues.

HINOJOSA: So you have a political prisoner, does everybody in Iran know that you have all of these political prisoners? Was this person sentenced to death? Did they die?

BAHARI: No, both of them killed themselves. One of them last month died of hunger strike, and the one last week he hung himself.

HINOJOSA: Wow. Does that hit the front pages of the newspaper? How is it talked about in Iran?

BAHARI: No.

BAHARI: It's mainly through web logs and foreign radio, you know? Iranian radio's based on and outside of Iran.

HINOJOSA: Wow. So when there's a possibility of movement, people are saying perhaps there's movement toward some sort of resolution, is there a sense of people kind of like exhaling and saying, "Whew, okay. We've got— we've bought ourselves a little bit of time, maybe we can move forward here?"

BAHARI: Well people are just happy that there won't be a war, that the country will not be attacked. Yes, I mean even the most ardent opponents of this government in Iran, they don't want the country to be bombed or attacked by the US, or invaded by the US. It was like that like Iraq was invaded, so yes. I mean, there is a feeling of joy, if you want in the street, that you know, there is a compromise between Iran and the US that, whereby Iran will not be attacked by the United States.

HINOJOSA: A feeling of joy? Really?

BAHARI: Of course. Yeah, I mean who wants their country to be attacked? Do you want your country to be attacked by another country?

HINOJOSA: No, but there's nothing that's really on the books. You're saying that there's a feeling of joy, but it's not as if anything has been signed or committed, it's just that even the fact that there's a little bit of movement creates a sense of palpable joy?

BAHARI: I mean as much joy as you can get from the signs. Of course, if there is a signed agreement there will be more joy, but I mean people are just happy that their country, and in general right now, Iranians are not that political. People are in Iran they have so many economic problems that they don't really think about politics. I mean, it might be different to believe that outside of Iran, but that's true, that's you know?

Iranians they are just not political people at this point. And it's very apathetic society at the moment that, you know, people are just tired of politics and disappointed in politicians. And you know it seems that there is a pact between the Iranian government and the people of Iran that wile the Iranian government can provide the basics for Iranian people, and don't probe too much into their personal lives Iranian people remain apolitical and don't act against the government. But, that may change if the price of oil comes down and if the government starts to crack down on social freedom. But at the moment, it seems that the Iranian government wants to follow the Chinese model, which is to provide people with social freedom, you know, boys and girls be able to go out and hold hands, but pressurize people on soc— on political freedom and freedom of expression.

HINOJOSA: And what about you, Maziar, you are a journalist, you have worked there since 1998, you've been Newsweek's correspondent there, you've produced news for the BBC. So, if you had to look back at this week and say, "Yea, positive movement, something tangible," would that be where you're coming from? Or, are you still taking a step back and saying, "Not yet."

BAHARI: I would be more skeptical than most people, maybe, because of historical precedent. That, I think we just have to let the negotiations finish. I mean, the most important negotiations this week— is between the chief Iranian and nuclear negotiator and the President of the European Union, in somewhere in Europe, they haven't decided yet.

And, we have to see the outcome of that what is the outcome of that those negotiations. They had one the first round of negotiations last week, and that's what they said that both sides said that there were positive developments. But I think we just have to wait.

But the thing is that I don't think that Iran's problem is really nuclear weapons. I think the Iranian government, it's just not an efficient government, and it's internal Iranian problem that I'm worried about.

HINOJOSA: In fact, when you wrote this essay for the New York Times, and I'm gonna read from it, you basically said that fantasy has been, has become something of a national sport in Iran. You said that your President predicted that the national soccer team would finish third or fourth in the world cup.

He also thinks that Iran can become a nuclear powerhouse even though we have a hard time manufacturing matched or making light bulbs with life expectancies of more than two weeks. And then you wrote to that the soccer team didn't even make it out of the first round. So, when you're talking about the internal issues of the Iranian government, it's like trying to make a light bulb that lasts for six weeks is a bigger deal?

BAHARI: I mean, it is a bigger deal I mean the government should be able to provide for the people, and not and I mean, and not only depend on the price of oil, you know, to provide for people. And I'm not only blaming the Islamic Republic, you know, that came to power 27 years ago, even before the revolution we had the same problem, that our government's dependent on oil money to provide for people. And they haven't paid any attention to the economy, the infrastructures, the industries, and because of that we do not have a very healthy economy. And I think economy is what's going to catch up with this government and going to paralyze it very soon. I think as soon as the price of oil comes lower than 50 and then, you know, they have to make certain reforms. And some of that reform may include better relations with the rest of the world because we need foreign investment, we need to manufacture things in Iran to be able to export them, and I think, yeah, I'm mostly worried about what's happening inside the country, that the government is just intoxicated on oil money, and people are just apathetic at the moment.

HINOJOSA: Wow. So, when you talk amongst Americans, one of the first things that they'll say about your President is the statement that he made about Israel, it should be wiped off the map, that the Holocaust was a myth. Help us understand why he made those statements and how we should interpret those statements and if they're as big a deal in Iran as they are here in the United States.

BAHARI: No, they are not as big a deal. And I don't think you should take it really seriously because I mean. In Iran, talking about the Holocaust is like talking about Armenian genocide in Turkey or the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. So, it's not a matter that, you know, people really care about in their daily lives. And it may not be right, but you know, I don't think that people in Israel care that much about the genocide in Armenia or Khmer Rouge killings.

HINOJOSA: But to say that Israel should be wiped off the map, that's that's pretty extreme.

BAHARI: I mean, that's something that I think that and, I mean, both of those sentences I think he had the Arab audiences in mind, because in Arab countries people have a very deep hatred of Israel which some part of it comes from Ignorance about the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust and the nature of Israel, and the other parts comes from Israeli atrocities and American's support of Israeli atrocities. So, I think that our President, for very strange reasons, tried to appease the Arab masses and the Muslim masses around the world. And at the same time, what he did with that, it was made before I mean people inside the government as well. He tried to radicalize the atmosphere in order to marginalize the more pragmatic, more reformist politicians from the arena, because from the political arena, because these are the two issues that people, you know, have almost the same feeling.

I mean, Israel issue, I mean, most politicians in Iran, they like Israel, of course, but I mean not many people think that Israel can be wiped off the map. And I think the President clarified himself as well. He said that what I meant by wiped off the map was not through violence but through a referendum, and after referendum Israel will be just annihilated automatically because there will be a democratic Palestinian government that will include Jews, Christians and Muslims in it. So he tried to, I mean, but people in Iran, a lot of people, don't think that he said the right thing. I don't think that he said the right thing, you know, and he became President denying Holocaust was not one part of his mandate, and people did not vote for him to deny Holocaust. The sad thing I think is that is not the fact that he denied the Holocaust, the sad thing is that he is the President of Iran, and you know, we have such a President who does not know about history, and he does not know about the sensitivity of international community this issue. And, you know, I think it's just very dangerous for Iran to make such comments.

HINOJOSA: So if you have a President that you say basically lacks a broader world vision, lack a kind of historical education, than can you in fact see some positive movement forward with this perspective that you have of your own President?

BAHARI: I think we do. I mean, I don't think that your President really has a much better perception of the world and what's going on what's going on in the world either. You know, I mean George Bush, President of the United States, I think they're very similar people. They're both very provincial politicians. And I think it's just but I think it's just the circumstances that dictate to them. And, you know what are whatever their advisors are telling them or what their people are demanding of them. And the thing is about the Iranian president is that it's not as powerful as presidents in many other countries.

HINOJOSA: Speaking of which you're making a comparison between the United States and Iran, which I think many people might say, "Wow, never though that those two countries could be compared or seen even as similar." Let's talk about what happened this week between Iraq and Iran.

Your president met for the first time with the Iraqi Prime Minister this is you know, people know that Iran and Iraq went through a very brutal, vicious war, a lot of animosity between the two countries, and yet Iran Iraqi President is saying now that the talks were very constructive, called Iran a very important country, a good friend, a brother. How do you see the Iran/Iraq newer relationship vis a vie the United States?

BAHARI: I spent a lot of time in Iraq in the past three, four years, and most Iraqis and most Iranians don't believe that it was really a war between Iran and Iraq, it was a war between Saddam Hussein and his cronies against Iran. And most people know that while Iranian authorities Islamic Republic of Iran was sheltering the opponents of Saddam Hussein in Iran, the United States and many countries in the West, they were supporting Saddam Hussein.

Among those opponents of Saddam Hussein who were refugees in Iran were Nouri al-Maliki, the current President of Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the former President of Iraq, and many members of Iraqi Parliaments and government. So, for the United States to not to like the fact that Iran and Iraq they have a close relations, it just doesn't make sense you know? It these people, the people in the government of Iraq right now, they were receiving money from Iranian government for 27 years.

They were getting support here for 27 years before 25 years when the Americans, they were supporting Saddam Hussein. And they cannot just expect that, you know, these people forget what happened during those 20, 25 years, and then all of a sudden change their alliances and say that, okay, Iranians are our new enemy, and we are supporting the United States against Iran.

It just doesn't happen like that. And Iraqis know that Iran will be their neighbors forever, but the United States and the American forces may leave soon. And many of them hope that they leave soon.

HINOJOSA: So do you think that this raises, I mean, I can imagine some of our listeners saying, "Iran and Iraq getting closer, is this really something that is good for us in the future, or something that we should be even more concerned about?"

BAHARI: For us meaning the United States?

HINOJOSA: In the United States.

BAHARI: Well I think it may not be very good for the current administration of the United States, and is may not be good for the interest of the United States in the region, but I think the problem is with the interests of the United States in the region, 'cause you know, it's American people worrying about Iranian and— Iraqi relations, it's as if Iranians worry about American relations with Canada and Mexico, you know? I don't think that Iranians have any right to worry about NAFTA, North American Free Trade Agreement, so I don't think that the Americans really should be concerned about Iran and Iraqi relations. And if they are worried about the soldiers, I understand that, you know, there are, you know, brave men and women in your army, and I think that the Americans, they made the mistake in the first place to invade Iraq and have their troops there, and they should just withdraw their troops as soon as possible because the existence of troops in the region is just more counter-productive and it has become a source of problems and not a problem solving factor.

HINOJOSA: So I wonder how we in the United States should interact, in terms of wanting to support more freedoms in Iran. It was announced this week in your country that your government closed two opposition newspapers, one that poked fun at the way the President was basically handling these nuclear talks. What is it that we can in fact do, if anything, when we're watching what's happening within your own country, opposition people in prison killing themselves, newspapers being closed, and yet you're saying, "It's okay, move forward."

BAHARI: I think what yeah, I think what the American people should do is just to pressurize their own representatives in the in the Congress and the Senate and their government to change their hostile policies towards Iran and have a more realistic policy towards Iran. That, you know, you have to change your behavior. I mean, it's not right to condemn a country and try to get into another war while you have two other disasters, Afghanistan and Iraq, on your hands. And the other for the Americans to help Iranian movement, civil society movement, is to allow more Iranians to travel to the US. I mean the United States might be one of the freest countries in the world. And there are so many good things for Iranians to see in the US and that will change their behavior immediately. There are talks that the first part of the sanctions against Iran will be a blockade for traveling of Iranian officials outside of the country. I think that's the most counterproductive thing that they can do, because whenever I see an official who comes who goes out of Iran and sees something new in Europe or the US, it just changes their horizon, and you know, they become a different person. Because these people are just isolated people, so they need to see more things. And at the end, I think that the American people, they should morally support the Iranian people's struggle for more freedom of expression and more freedom in general, and I think dedicating, as the American Congress did $85 million to support Iranian opposition is just not going to work. And it can be counterproductive because any opposition group or any civil society group that receives support from outside can be charged of espionage here. And you know, it can be looked at with suspicion, that you know, they are acting as a fifth column of a foreign power.

HINOJOSA: So finally, when you talk about change and people who are seeing things different, and through a different prism young people, you wrote in your essay in the New York Times basically are more concerned about getting a plasma TV so that they can watch Britney Spears. I think a lot of Americans may say, "Iranian teenagers want to watch Britney Spears? And, they're text messaging? And they're on the internet?" Is this the greatest challenge, really, to your government, is what's happening with the young people there?

BAHARI: I think at the moment it is. I think at the moment Iranian people are becoming, you know, because I mean this government came to power promising people more prosperity. I mean, they told the Iranian people that they want to impose more religious laws as well, but the main reason that they came to power was prosperity. And Iranian people and young Iranians, like any other people, or young people in the world, they like material goods, they like to, you know, I mean plasma TVs and Britney Spears, they're just kinds of material goods, they're just a global materialist world. And you know, they're just interested in those things. And I think for the government and those may be that I mean, we were talking about the economy before, and I think that will pose a bigger challenge to the Iranian government to be able to provide for, or allow the young people of Iran to be able to work and be employed in order to make enough money to buy plasma TVs or to have satellite dishes in order to watch Britney Spears or Iranian pop diva GU Gush. And people, they just, I mean, at the moment, it's just that people are a-political, people just want to have a good life, and if the government, within the next few years can provide them with a better life and better employment opportunities, it can survive. Otherwise it will be very difficult for the Iranian government to survive, and I think that's the main problem in Iran, it's not the nuclear issue, it's not its relations with Iraq, it's not interference with the internal affairs of Afghanistan or whatever. It's the economy.

HINOJOSA: Maziar Bahari, I want to thank you for joining us on our podcast on Now On PBS it's been fascinating talking with you.

BAHARI: You're welcome.

HINOJOSA: Thanks so much. We'll be with you again next week with our Now On PBS podcast. I'm Maria Hinojosa.

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