Talking Tehran: Journalists Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian discuss Iran

A view from the streets of Tehran was on offer to the Boston community last week as Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian, two of the foremost journalists reporting on Iran today, joined the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy for an exclusive discussion on all things Persian. Jason was The Washington Post‘s bureau chief in Tehran, and Yeganeh a reporter for United Arab Emirates-based The National newspaper when they were arrested and unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities in 2014.

In their first joint public event since being released, the journalist couple shared their thoughts and experiences of Iran from the ground, offering an intimate insight into the worldview of Iranians in 2017.

On being a journalist in Iran

Jason credited his multicultural upbringing – his father was from Iran, his mother from Illinois – as a main reason for deciding to work as a journalist in Iran. “The experience of growing up with an Iranian family was one of the things that led me to go there in the first place.”

Having a foot in both cultures was a major boon for his work as a journalist, he believes. “Having grown up in this country [the United States] working in that country [Iran] … my job was to tell the stories of that country to people in this country. That’s not something that a local journalist can really do as effectively. And it’s definitely not something that somebody can do from a third society entirely … So I thought from the beginning I had a leg up on the competition.”

When asked about risks journalists face in the Middle East, both Jason and Yeganeh said that the risks are not necessarily greater now – but they are better-publicized. “So many of the risks we face now – abduction, being murdered … those things have been here for a long time; they’re just way more prominent now,” said Jason.

One major problem, as he sees it, is that there is not an international “call for unity in terms of saying [to repressive countries]: journalism is journalism. You either accept that these people are going to work freely in your country, or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways. And I think too many countries – Turkey being one, Iran being another to a different degree, Egypt – they get away with this way too often.”

Creative circumvention

But as hard as these countries may try, creating a news-free environment is now almost impossible. While Iran has at least 25 domestic newspapers, almost all of which are either state-run or state-sponsored, Yeganeh noted that the internet has become Iranians’ most important source of information. “Despite the fact that both Twitter and Facebook are filtered in Iran … Iranians have huge presence on those social media,” she said. Another important source of news is satellite dishes beaming channels from outside Iran. “I know for a fact that there are people who watch the news hour on state TV at 9pm, and at 11pm they turn their satellite channels on and they compare whatever they heard on state TV with whatever they heard on BBC Persia or Voice of America.”

“You can’t really stop the flow of information anymore,” Jason added. “People are smart enough to know how to get over the hurdles.”

These controls frustrate Iranians, even if they are able to circumvent them, particularly because “the top leadership of the country uses all of those channels, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook,” said Jason. “I think President Rouhani has a verified Twitter account [despite Twitter being banned in Iran]… this is that sort of disconnect. I don’t know how long people put up with that.”

“People get creative all the time,” said Yeganeh. If VPN (virtual private networks, an alternative way to access the internet) access is blocked, “in less than a few minutes you hear from your cousin, ‘Oh, use this one.’ There’s always something.”

Geopolitical games

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in a “cold war” for hegemony in the region. In recent years, the tensions have increased, as Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Iranian protesters sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the two sides sponsored opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

Despite this rivalry, though, Jason and Yeganeh agreed that most Iranians do not want war. “Less than 30 years ago, we were involved in eight years of imposed war [against Iraq,” said Yeganeh. “We are still, to some extent, battling the outcomes of that war.” Iran has historically felt itself to be in a vulnerable position, she explained, surrounded as it is by mainly Sunni and Arab countries.

But Saudi-Iranian tensions are not solely military in nature. There’s a cultural element to the struggle too, Jason argues. “The battle for cultural influence … is really important to Iran,” he said, adding that many of the predominantly Arab Gulf states have had centuries-long relations with Iran, and still bear some marks of Iranian cultural influence. Compared to Iran, he said, “I don’t think Saudi Arabia has that same sort of cultural pull. They have money, they have influence with America, they protect their neighboring kingdoms, but … I don’t see it as a cultural force.”

Women in Iran

Yeganeh stressed that women in Iran “are not like Saudis. We vote, we drive.” Seventy percent of university students are women, and they are well-represented in business and government, too, she said.

However, she added, “obviously there are things that women have been deprived of … Let them choose their own choice of clothing. Many women decide to cover themselves. But don’t force it, don’t make it law. … A few months ago they banned biking in Iran for girls. I don’t know whether many girls in Iran ride a bike, but it’s just so dehumanizing.”

She disputed that rules like these stem only from Islam, though, explaining: “Part of it [the cultural conservatism] is being located in a very patriarchal part of the world. People are still, whether we like it or not, traditional.”

For instance, Jason cited the case of a powerful cleric in Iran who blamed the country’s environmental problems on women who were “showing too much hair and skin. I don’t know if he believed that or not … people brush aside [such comments] all the time, but I think it’s pretty insidious.”

When asked what he thought Americans should know about Iran, Jason said, “This is a country where people aren’t sitting around actively thinking about how to destroy you. This is a country that’s moving forward, and in this society there are many hundreds of thousands of Iranians living really positive and productive lives.”

And as for what Iranians should know about Americans? “The one thing that I would like to tell Iranians,” Jason said, is that “not all Americans are spies. Including this one.”

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