Summer 2009

The Virtual Iran Beat

‘Speaking Farsi helps expand our ability to gather news. It means we can tap into a more extensive network and speak to more Iranians, even if we’re not based in Tehran.’

By Kelly Golnoush Niknejad


Tehran Bureau’s home page.


The Pakistani taxi driver I have directed to the Iranian Embassy pumps his brakes as we approach the U.S. Embassy, a seven-story building that resembles the hull of a battleship. Tall and arrogant, it looms large over the Abu Dhabi Desert. I had recently started a job in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the diplomatic affairs correspondent for a new English-language newspaper. The American Embassy is down the road from the Iranian one—close enough that the Iranians refer to it when giving directions to their own.

“Here?” the driver asks, turning around for another quick look. I have olive skin and my dark hair is dutifully covered for the occasion. But the accent behind the hijab is unmistakably American. “No, the Iranian Embassy,” I repeat, this time with more emphasis.

As he pulls away from the curb, I feel a deep pang of separation, coupled with excitement: This is the closest I’ve been to Iran in more than 20 years. The embassy’s turquoise-tiled walls, evoking something in my childhood, shimmer in the distance. What look like thick black scribbles give way to fancy calligraphy—Qur’anic verses, I assume—as we get closer.

Like many Iranian Americans, I feel as if I’m from a broken home: The parents are divorced but still feuding after three decades. As a journalist, my position is more precarious.

In what has been called a cold war between Iran and the United States, the UAE has emerged as a Vienna of sorts—a place where America’s Iran-watchers can mingle with thousands of Iranians. One hub for this is the expanded Iran Desk at the U.S. consulate in Dubai, the more cosmopolitan UAE city-state up the coast from the capital. If Iranians are suspicious of journalists, it’s partly because our reporting jobs can seem like the perfect cover to gather intelligence.

Iranians have a deep-seated paranoia about spies and conspiracies. There is a long history of political intrigue to explain such suspicions. In 1953, a CIA-engineered coup ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled the shah, under whose reign American agents roamed the land. CIA and Israel’s Mossad reportedly trained Iran’s secret police. More intriguingly, CIA director Richard Helms was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Iran after he left the agency in 1973. (Incidentally, Helms started his career as a journalist.) When militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, they dubbed it “the den of spies.”

The 1980’s were particularly bleak. Soon after the Islamic Republic was established, the regime consolidated power in the brutal ways a state does. While it fought an eight-year war that its neighbor Iraq started, it also waged internal battles with domestic foes—the Kurds, the communist Tudeh Party, and especially the Iranian Mojahedin, a quasi-Marxist cult on the U.S. terrorist list.

Much has changed in Iran since that decade in which I left Iran, but some important progress made in the 1990’s has been stymied by those who think the way forward is to revert to practices they themselves deplored under the shah—and ones that led to a revolution. Economic and cultural reforms slowly put in place after the war were effectively rolled back in this decade, especially since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Things got worse the following year, when the Bush administration asked Congress for tens of millions of dollars to secretly fund NGOs and activists to destabilize the Iranian government. It stoked government paranoia and became an effective tool in the hands of officials who have used it to stifle dissent and spread fear.

If the Iranians believe this is vital to their survival, the fear may be misplaced. As Ervand Abrahamian, a U.S.-based Iran scholar, argues in a recent paper, it was not a reign of terror, the eight-year war, oil revenue, or even the strength of Shi’ism that sustained the Iranian regime—but populism. The challenge the regime now faces, according to Abrahamian, is to “juggle the competing demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class—especially the ever-expanding army of university graduates produced, ironically, by one of the revolution’s main achievements. This new stratum needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social mobility and access to the outside world—with all its dangers, especially to well-protected home industries—and, concomitantly, the creation of a viable civil society.”

The Iranian Press


The press is one place to start. The media in Iran is often state owned and always closely supervised. Those newspapers not run directly by the state are associated with political parties and prominent figures whose factional rivalries sometimes spill over into the papers. Those in power often assert it by shutting down a rival’s mouthpiece.

There’s another reason to reform the press in Iran. Since a systematic crackdown, which has included journalists, bloggers, academics and researchers, journalism there has become synonymous with jail and tyranny. Adopting more liberal press practices is likely to do Iran far more good than harm, and here’s four reasons why:

  1. The work of any journalist or propagandist pale in comparison to the far-fetched scenarios swirling in Iranian living rooms, taxi cabs—and, above all, in the Iranian imagination. I’ve heard them all and, believe me, reality is not always stranger than fiction.

  2. Satellite dishes are illegal but on the ascent in Iran. They crop up faster than officials can take them down. Most of the programs they watch stream in from Los Angeles, where there is a lot of singing and dancing, but from where dissidents have been unsuccessfully trying to topple the regime for 30 years. Both the British-funded BBC Persian service and the U.S. government-backed Voice of America have expanded their radio broadcasts to include television. So great is the audience, that essentially the government is not shielding anyone from anything.

  3. Foreign journalists have a difficult time obtaining permission to report from Iran or to set up bureaus there. Visiting reporters are obliged to employ “minders” from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, something they fail to tell their viewers and readers. This might help authorities feel in greater control of the information that trickles out. But the news vacuum about Iran is filled not by The New York Times or ABC News but by information disseminated by interest groups, dissidents and other much more biased parties.

  4. What do the arrests and jailing of journalists and bloggers accomplish? If anything, it attracts more attention to their work. And it reinforces the worst stereotypes everyone already has about Iran. Why not break them?

Tehran Bureau: An Online News Hub

The decision to create TehranBureau.com, an online news magazine to which journalists familiar with Iran contribute stories, emerged out of many conversations and e-mails with a classmate from Columbia Journalism School. Each of us wanted to report news about Iran, but not in the simplistic way that country is too often covered by the Western mainstream media. As much to avoid the dangers of Iran’s factional politics as to escape the Western news media’s bias against Iran and Iranians, we decided to take advantage of the Internet and set up a virtual bureau. In part, our thinking was guided by us knowing that Iranians are as much plugged in as any developed society.

At a time when world news should be more important than ever, news organizations continue their contraction, and to do this they’ve shuttered or scaled back foreign bureaus. Though the trend in journalism is specialization, news organizations appear to be investing fewer resources in the cultivation of editorial and reporting staffs who can become, in effect, area experts.

This reduction in reporting knowledge and resources has consequences, as information slips through as news that shapes Western perceptions and policy. Four years ago, soon after the last presidential election—the one Ahmadinejad won—a black-and-white photograph purporting to show the new president as a hostage-taker in the 1979 embassy takeover circulated widely in the media. To an Iranian, certainly, the person in the picture looks nothing like him. I e-mailed a professor who was working on a book about the hostage crisis to get his perspective.

“That was first sent out by an MEK-affiliated Web site,” he wrote back, referring to the Iranian Mojahedin, an Iranian opposition group living in exile. “The two individuals in the photo have long since been identified as a MEK partisan who was later executed and another student who was killed in the Iraq War.” More interestingly, in the eight years Ahmadinejad’s predecessor was president, the media remained quiet or ignorant about the leading role of many reformists close to President Mohammad Khatami in the embassy seizure, including his brother.

One of my primary motivations in setting up Tehran Bureau in 2008 was to assemble a staff in which reporters and editors speak the language—and can tell people apart. Speaking Farsi helps expand our ability to gather news. It means we can tap into a more extensive network and speak to more Iranians, even if we’re not based in Tehran. We can read Iranian bloggers—those who write in Iran and those who live in exile—and scan the Iranian press and, by reading between the lines, we can ultimately deliver a more reliable product, even if we do so with barely any financial support. (We refuse to take money from any government agency, religious or interest group.)

Here are two examples of coverage of Iran by Tehran Bureau:

  • In March, Gareth Smyth, who reported from Iran for the Financial Times, wrote “Hot times and cool heads,”1 about political dynamics inside of Iran and the United States that might result in the two countries engaging in dialogue.

  • The impact of Mohammad Khatami’s withdrawal as a presidential candidate has been written about from several angles in blog posts as part of Tehran Bureau’s reporting on the Iranian election in June.


As part of Tehran Bureau’s pre-election coverage, Gareth Smyth wrote about U.S.-Iran politics.

Surprises Along the Way

The Iranian ambassador I had a meeting with that day had been the foreign ministry spokesman for a long time. He was sophisticated and media savvy. At that time, the circumstances in the UAE were stacked against me. The paper I was writing for had no name and was still months away from being published. As we started dry runs, I wrote stories on deadline for a paper with no name that no one outside the newsroom saw. Plus, as an Iranian American, I knew the Iranian authorities would never trust me. But in the course of my work, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and access and treated me with respect and my American colleagues, even more so.

My experience wasn’t limited to the foreign ministry. The first time I spoke to one of Tehran’s hard liners, I was based in London and working as an associate producer for “Frontline.” After many months had passed and it was pretty apparent my colleagues’ visas weren’t going to come through, I picked up the phone and dialed a number that wasn’t all that difficult to find. “Salaam,” I said, introducing myself. “I’m calling from London,” I said. Strike one. (Many Iranians believe the British are worse than Americans when it comes to plotting against Iranians. The 1953 coup was initially hatched by the British, after all.) I continued, “I work for an American television station.” Strike two. “We’re making a documentary about U.S.-Iran relations since 9/11,” I, an Iranian American, said. Strike three. I took a deep breath and braced for the worst.

“Can I see your programs on satellite television?” this official with a provincial accent asked after a pause.

“No,” I replied, but I sent him a link to “Frontline’s” online archives. And I was impressed by his gmail address.

After a couple of days, he called me. “It’s a good program,” he said. “It’s certainly better than the other television programs there, anyway.”

Not long after this conversation, we were in.

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad founded Tehran Bureau in November 2008, initially as a blog. She serves as managing editor as well as one of its reporters. Tehran Bureau can be found at www.tehranbureau.com. Information about the “Frontline” documentary, “Showdown With Iran,” is at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/showdown/.


11 Comments on The Virtual Iran Beat
ana says:
December 12, 2011 at 7:54pm
Salam!

Probably I'm the only non-iranian writing here, but i felt i should do it anyway, since I am a big fan of your page. Just wanted to congratulate you for such a great job - it helps a lot to have an unbiased information in english. People unfortunately do have a very distorted image due to media..And after my roadtrip to Iran - which was an amazing trip & a truly stereotype-breaker - I understood many things that we, westerners, have no clue about.Which is why now I am following Tehran Bureau more than the news from my own country, while wishing I could actually do something for supporting iranian people...Anyhow, I could go on forever but, just to keep it short: thanks for making this available also for those non-iranians who are still very interested in what's happening out there! Ana
Ben khezri says:
July 7, 2009 at 9:05pm
Dear Ms.Neknejad
Thank you for posting my comments.If i can be of any assistance please do not hesitate to call upon me...
Best regards,
Ben Khezri
Ben khezri says:
July 6, 2009 at 10:43pm
Dear Ms.Nijnejad
It is a wonderful gift that you have given our people and our nation.The current "revolution" will bring a new rennasance.Not only will it change the history of our people and nation but it will effect the world.Your duty and thatof all Iranians worldwide is to make sure that it is effected in a positive manner and direction.You have a great responsibilty and we will stand with you shoulder to shoulder. This is just the begining of a long road.
Mahshid Fashandi says:
June 3, 2009 at 2:22pm
Enjoyed the article. Thank you so much for your hard work!
Tina Gharavi says:
June 3, 2009 at 2:44am
Great. Now, can you tell me what plans you have to reform the American media??
Meshel May says:
June 2, 2009 at 7:19pm
Dear Golnoush,

Thank you for bringing us Tehran Bureau. Your mission is much needed in today's media. Having traveled to Iran several times (even as an America) I have seen the stark difference between the real Iran, and the Iran often portrayed on the news here in the States. I can atest that there is a real hunger in the US to know more about the real Iran without swinging drastically one way or another, politically. Your take is fresh, professional, and genuine. I look forward to reading your stories, and to Tehran Bureau enlightening more and more people, as I am confident it will.

All the best,
Michelle May
Leyli Daryoush says:
June 2, 2009 at 5:45pm
Golnnosh joon
I definitely admire your work as a writer and journalist. Your online magazine offers an objective and rational vision of Iran, far from all kinds of clichés, and this gives me a lot of joy.
You can count on my collaboration once my thesis is done. In other words, I will give you my best from July 15th.
Best,
Leyli Daryoush
Reza Akhlaghi says:
June 2, 2009 at 11:20am
Dear Golnoush:

With limited resources at your disposal, you've been doing a truly great job !

Please keep up the great work and do not hesitate to ask for support. My friends in Canada are becoming a big fan of Tehran Bureau.

Best Regards,
Reza Akhlaghi
Golnoush Niknejad says:
June 2, 2009 at 6:47am
Thank you very much for your comments and feedback. I appreciate them very much.

Tara, please feel free to email me directly at info [at] tehranbureau [dot] com

golnoush
Tara says:
June 2, 2009 at 2:43am
Golnush jaan,

The election scene is grossly un-covered thus far in terms of "the street" and huge steps being taken as never since 1979. I know a doc filmmaker in town now who is taking spectacular footage (HDV) - I can send it to you as a video essay. This needs to be covered, because the outcome effects the ME, and US/Israel/Iran triangle, for the next four years and where it came from must be understood.

Also, Jason Rezaian (iran blog on SF Chronicle) and Farhod Family (elex blog on PressTV) are good guys to contact for reportage - Jason has a press pass himself and Farhod is on the campaign trail from the inside.

Correspondents from intl press are arriving in Tehran next week ... but still, the depth and details should not be lost. Especially : images of the people in action. After all, that's the other half of the so-called Iranian hybrid "theo-democracy" as Foreign Policy calls it! But MSM only focuses on Khamenei and the dark side of the IRI. There is a vibrant bright side and its coming out now like never before even during Khatami ...!

Tehran Bureau is a hub (I like your roster of contributors) but with this coverage, it will become the hub "par excellence" as it could and should be.

all the best,
Tara
Sheldon Roth says:
June 1, 2009 at 7:50pm
Dear Golnoush,
Your writing is clear, pointed, free of 'cant' and full of 'can.' With journalistic energy you breeze along the complex dynamics of Iran, Iranians and yourself. A pleasure...
Warm regards,
Sheldon
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