Al Jazeera America’s Ali Velshi has been reporting on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. However while the talks are in Vienna, Austria, Velshi has been in Iran, talking to officials and average Iranians. He has also anchored his program, Ali Velshi on Target, live from Tehran.
TKNN spoke with Velshi, who was still in Tehran during the interview, about the coverage and the views of Iranians.
TKNN: Whose idea was it to go to Iran?
ALI VELSHI: Mine. I’ve always been concerned about a lack of reporting on a place so crucial as Iran. Between George Bush branding it part of the “Axis of Evil” and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s inflammatory remarks, Iran had grown distant from the global community. A potential nuclear power, an established regional superpower, and a natural ally in the global battle against ISIL, it seemed strange how willing Western media is to accept an established line about Iran’s motivations and its people. Once a place becomes a monolith in the eyes of the mass media, you know something is being missed and it’s time to go in.
There has been some excellent reporting done on the country over the years but I wanted to go in, immerse myself, and bring my viewers the most comprehensive look at the country that I could in a short time.
TKNN: Other news networks have been sending correspondents to Iran to cover the talks, so how do you differentiate your coverage and offer something new or different?
AV: I’ve avoided coverage of the talks almost entirely, leaving that to my Al Jazeera English colleague James Bays and his team in Vienna. I’m talking to a cross-section of Iranians: civilians and government officials, liberals, conservatives and reformists, political people and merchants and workers. I’ve watched Friday prayers; partaken of Iftar dinners; visited the Strait of Hormuz – the strategic 21-mile wide chokepoint through which 17 million barrels or 20% of the world’s traded oil flows every day; boarded a cargo ship to see, first-hand, the almost 30% drop in shipping that sanctions have cost Iran, and met a former hostage-taker: a woman who is now a Vice President of Iran.
But most of my reporting has involved conversations with Iranians who hold no position, and it has revolved the complicated relationship they have with the West, and with their own state.
TKNN: Iran is often seen as a closed-off country. Is that what you are experiencing?
AV: It’s a highly-controlled environment, and freedom of speech as Westerners know it does not exist. It is a theocracy and one cannot be critical of the state religion, Shia Islam, or of the Republic’s founder, the Imam Ayatollah Khomeini. His word is regarded as infallible.
On a more practical level, Iran was removed in 2012 from the SWIFT banking system – that’s the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions – so neither the government nor individuals and businesses can transfer money electronically to or from Iran to most countries. This is much more powerful than sanctions because it makes it difficult for Iranians to even purchase things that otherwise aren’t sanctioned. Western credit cards and ATM cards don’t work here – you have to travel with the cash you need. This discourages tourism, business and curiosity. There are few Western branded shops, but Western goods (other than American cars) are widely available and consumed, and Iranians are particularly familiar with most things American (including pop culture.)
TKNN: You have landed several interviews with both Iranian officials and normal citizens. Was it difficult to convince them to talk to you?
AV: Surprisingly not. Iranian officials are generally quite secure in their views. Iranian civilians, however, self-sensor when asked to discuss politics with a western reporter. I’m told Iranians discuss politics all the time, consume news actively, and work around the country’s Internet restrictions and Web site bans with ease. But there are a lot of cameras and police (including morality police, who enforce “Islamic” dress codes for women), which discourages any sort of dialogue which might be construed as illegal criticism. As one Iranian businessman told me when I asked him what he was scared of (as my photographer tried to get images of the outside of his store): “This is Iran; we are scared of our own shadows.”
TKNN: Was it difficult or easy to cover the Iranian negotiations?
AV: Easy – because I left the actual talks in Vienna to my colleagues there and stuck to what nonofficial people were saying and writing in Iran.
Iranians are united in wanting the sanctions lifted (except those who are outside the country who believe the regime is oppressive and needs to suffer further in order to really change.) But many Iranians with whom I spoke did not share the official line of absolute pride in their nuclear program and offense that the West would try to dismantle it. Most people care about their own economic situation, here just like anywhere else in the world. They generally want greater freedoms.
Iranians who remain in this country of 80 million people do seem united in in the view that the U.S. itself stifled democracy when the CIA toppled a democratically-elected government in 1953. They are not all anti-Western (some certainly are), but they are largely anti constant Western interference.
TKNN: Were officials hesitant to talk to you?
AV: Not in the least. I did come during Ramadan when things slow down a lot, and while the most senior officials were engaged in the negations, so I didn’t get some of the highest level interviews that I otherwise might have. But I came here largely to speak to Iranian people, not government officials, and in that I succeeded.
TKNN: Your coverage has shown the impact the sanctions has caused. Have you seen an anti-American or anti-Western sentiment on the ground due to the impact?
AV: Yes, some. I attended the Friday prayers in Tehran, led by an (but not “The”) Ayatollah, who stood behind a pulpit with an anti-American slogan on it, while he addressed a crown do about 10,000 faithful.
I heard chants of “Marg Bar Amrika”, or Death to America, I saw posters being distributed admonishing people to avoid buying “Zionist” controlled products like Coke (widely available here), Nescafe, Nestle & Timberland, which didn’t quite make sense to me. There are banners and billboard around town with anti-American slogans, and an 11-story mural showing a sideways American flag, with skulls in place of the stars, and the stripes ending in dropping bombs. That said, not a single person in the hundred with who I spoke – and I asked every one – displayed hostility toward me. Iranians seem to make distinctions between American people and American foreign policy. A similar things goes for Israel. Iran has between 15,000 and 30,000 Jews (hard to get an exact number for obvious reasons), some of whom I met. It has ONE Jewish MP and a few kosher restaurants (delicious), and some Jewish parochial schools. The Jews with whom I spoke (indistinguishable in every way but their faith from the rest of the population) told me they didn’t sense discrimination. The fact that there were an estimated 100,000 Jews here before the Revolution tells a different story, but Jewish Iranians tell me things are better now than they were before, and that they live in harmony. The argument they use is similar to the anti-American one: Iranians are against the State of Israel (or, as they call it, the “Zionist Occupation of Palestine”) but have no beef with Jews. I haven’t quite gotten to the truth of this one yet.
TKNN: When talking to average Iranian citizens, are the negotiations something people are following? What is the mood toward the negotiations?
AV: The mood is positive but I don’t think the average Iranian cares near as much as the national rhetoric would suggest. People care about sanctions, the rate of inflation and how fast their money is devaluing against major currencies, the freedom to attend concerts and for women to attend sporting events (they can’t), liberalization of dress code (arguably it is liberalizing, with hardliners in a bit of a spat with the government about levels of enforcement), and the ability to get jobs, raise their wages, and buy and sell goods from other countries. How they get there is almost of no import to the average Iranian. I sensed real pride in the nuclear program, but an almost absolute willingness to trade it off entirely in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Our thanks to Ali Velshi for taking the time to answer our questions.