It was already July, and things were not looking good. The Iranian government had been sitting on our visa applications for nearly four months. Even worse, until Tehran made its decision, not a single Iranian official anywhere in the world would talk to us on the record. We were facing the prospect of making a film on U.S.-Iran relations since 9/11 without a single Iranian voice ... this was a producer's nightmare.
We knew from the outset that getting into Iran would never be easy. The regime doesn't let in many Western journalists, especially American TV crews, who are often suspected of somehow working for the CIA.
A close watcher of Iran advised us that our chances were slim. If we did get in, he said, there were two key people we should try to see -- Hossein Shariatmadari, the hard-line editor of Kayhan newspaper, considered the mouthpiece for Iran's Supreme Leader himself; and Mohammad Jafari, the powerful deputy national security adviser and an architect of Iran's policy inside Iraq. But there wasn't much hope: We were told neither Shariatmadari or Jafari would ever agree to an interview.
From an Iranian perspective our subject was potentially explosive. The regime's relations with America go to the heart of the Islamic Republic's identity -- careers there have been ruined by unauthorized contact with Americans -- and yet much of what we wanted to talk about involved the history of back-channel discussions between the two countries over the past six years. One example is the so-called "grand bargain" proposal, sent to Washington in May 2003. Inside Iran, this proposal has never been officially acknowledged, and it was clear from private discussions that the prospect of answering questions about it on the record filled Iranian officials with dread.
Then there was Iraq. The Bush administration was accusing Iran's Quds Force, the elite foreign operations branch of the Revolutionary Guards, of supplying the Shi'a militias that were attacking U.S. troops. In January, U.S. forces raided an Iranian government office in northern Iraq and tried to arrest Jafari, who is also a senior Quds Force commander. Obviously we wanted to ask him and other Iranian officials about the operations of the Quds Force, but inside Iran, the very existence of the Quds Force is classified, and no one will talk of it openly.
So we waited, and spent much of the early summer cooling our heels in Dubai, making contact with the huge Iranian expatriate community that is, in many ways, the economic backbone of this thriving emirate (and Iran's lifeline to circumvent U.N. sanctions), when the call from Tehran finally came. We were in … for one week only.
We found out later that our request had to be approved by three separate ministries -- Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Islamic Guidance -- and we arrived in Tehran expecting good access to officials within the regime. After all, they were letting us in -- so that must mean they had agreed to talk?
We quickly realized that's not how things work in Iran. We had to present our project all over again, in person, to various officials, and convince them that we really did want to hear their perspective on U.S. policy in the region since 9/11. The officials listened politely and said they would try to help, but as our one-week visa deadline loomed, we had lots of pretty shots of Tehran, but no official interviews.
Sometimes it's good to ring the alarm bells. We sent faxes, e-mails, phoned our contacts in Iran, all with the same message: Our film was teetering on the brink of disaster. We were about to leave the country without any key interviews. We might lose our jobs. We'd have to say the Iranian government declined to talk.
We'll never know what turned things around; it just happened. Suddenly our visas were extended two more weeks, which we were told was unprecedented.
And one by one, the interviews began to fall into place, including the ones we'd been told were all but impossible:
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the gentle reformist vice president who'd hoped to improve ties with America after 9/11, and now watches from the sidelines as tensions between Iran and the U.S. mount.
Hamid Reza Hajibabaei, a leader of the Majlis, Iran's parliament, and, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, part of a new generation of hard-liners who came of age during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, and are now taking positions of power throughout the government.
Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor and Supreme Leader's representative at Kayhan, Iran's leading newspaper. Part of the older generation that helped shape the revolution, Shariatmadari was arrested and tortured by the shah's notorious secret police.
Mohammad Jafari, the powerful deputy national security adviser and Quds Force commander who, in January, was targeted in a U.S. raid in Iraq. This was his first television interview anywhere -- so far as we know, he'd never even been on Iranian TV.
And we did ask Jafari directly about the secretive Quds Force -- but our translator wouldn't repeat the words…