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Seven Visas: Reporting from Iran

The Iranian government sometimes appears to favor U.S. reporters with little knowledge of the country who might be more amenable to spin.

One of my favorite trips to Iran was in December 2001. A post-9/11 glow mellowed Iranian attitudes toward the United States, and politicians who previously would not have openly advocated normal ties said the time had come for the United States and Iran to end three decades of hostility.

Iranians, accustomed to being on the receiving end of terrible violence during the Iran-Iraq war, deeply sympathized with Americans, who had also been the victims of an attack by Arabs. There were spontaneous candlelit demonstrations on the streets of Tehran. The Islamic government suspended the ritual chants of “death of America” at Friday prayers and went so far as to provide tacit cooperation with the United States against what was, for a change, a mutual enemy: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

I returned to Washington and wrote a cover story for USA Today, in my role then as the paper’s senior diplomatic reporter, about the new mood in Tehran. It was symbolized, I thought, by the fact that Tehranis at restaurants all over the capital were guzzling Coca Cola—the real thing, not some Persian knockoff. Coca Cola had just opened a bottling plant in the eastern city of Mashhad, a harbinger, it seemed, of reconciliation with the United States.

I felt certain that I would be back in Iran within a year. But I couldn’t get a visa for more than three years. It is possible that I was a casualty of the downturn in relations that followed President George W. Bush’s decision in 2002 to put Iran on a so-called “axis of evil” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea. Or perhaps the reason was personal. Among the half dozen stories I had written off the 2001 trip was one about Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah. Even though I reported that many Iranians thought the “baby shah,” as they called him, was no solution for Iran’s political problems, the mere fact that I had devoted an entire story to the topic had apparently rubbed some Iranian security types the wrong way.

The challenges of writing about Iran for a U.S. reporter are myriad. In some respects, Iranian Americans face greater danger because they must go to Iran on Iranian passports since the regime refuses to let them enter as Americans. That opens them to the prospect of de facto house arrest—should the government decide to confiscate their passports—or outright imprisonment as alleged subversives seeking the “soft overthrow” of the Iranian government. This happened earlier this year to Roxana Saberi, a freelance reporter for National Public Radio. Even those who escape such punishment are obliged to report regularly to Iranian “minders,” as has been documented by Azadeh Moaveni, a former reporter in Iran for Time magazine. That can lead to a certain amount of self-censorship.

So far, non-Iranian American journalists have had an easier time—perhaps because the regime doesn’t consider us so much of a threat. But challenges remain, the first being that of access to a country that has had no diplomatic ties with the United States for nearly three decades.

I have been fortunate to obtain seven visas in the past 13 years but learned with my Reza Pahlavi story that there are no guarantees. Gatekeepers change and new fixers can be required to smooth one’s path. The Iranian government sometimes appears to favor U.S. reporters with little knowledge of the country who might be more amenable to spin, although that has not happened in my case. In fact, it seems as though my access to officials has improved over time. It was on my fifth trip to Iran that I got my first big interviews—with then-national security adviser Hassan Rowhani and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These interviews took a lot of preparation and vetting by people close to these top officials. To get the Rafsanjani interview, I first had to meet a diplomat close to the former president, one of Rafsanjani’s sons, and a brother. I was also asked to extend my visit by several days. Top-level interviews in Iran invariably come at the last possible minute, often literally hours before getting on the plane to go home. So it was when I interviewed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006.

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