What AJAM’s Ali Velshi Has Learned From 2 Weeks in Iran

"Iran is overflowing with anger, swollen with disappointment and anxious for progress."

As nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany) inch toward a resolution in Vienna, Austria,  Al Jazeera America’s Ali Velshi, host of Ali Velshi On Target, is in his second week of reporting from Iran.

In addition to examining the effects sanctions have had on the Iranian economy, Velshi has spent his time conducting interviews with a cross section of society there. Those interviews have created a sense of a “nation of paradoxes,” and, if the talks succeed, one that may be radically different from its post-sanction version.

We asked Velshi about his experience reporting from Iran and how the U.S. narrative on the country differs from what he has learned on this trip.

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FBDC: How freely have you been able to move around and report from Iran?
Ali Velshi: We haven’t been restricted from anything except pointing our cameras in the direction of military and police facilities which, in a country like Iran, are numerous. There will be times when we think we are taping a billboard or a sign and we’ll be stopped and told there is some sensitive facility behind it so we can’t record. But we haven’t had our equipment confiscated or been asked to erase anything. It’s not more limiting than I expected it to be and, in fact, people speak more freely to me than I anticipated they would. Still, some conversations come to a grinding halt when I try to turn it to domestic Iranian politics. There’s a degree of self-censorship that takes place here.

FBDC: In what major ways does the U.S. media narrative on either the talks or the cultural/political situation in the country differ from your on-the-ground reporting?
Velshi: The U.S narrative seems blissfully unaware of the roots of the deep-seated ‎animosity many Iranians have toward America. Iranians of any age can describe how the CIA deposed their democratically elected government in 1953, and then supported the Shah’s regime, and how the revolution of 1979 was a response to what they saw as U.S interference in their internal affairs. From the American side, it seems a fanatical or at the very least, an out-of-date theocracy. Iran is most certainly a theocracy, but it’s responses to the west are historical and political much more than they are religious. It’s a nuance that seems almost completely missed by western media, but it’s a crucial one.

FBDC: Has reporting from the ground changed any of your own perceptions?
Velshi: Many. But the changes are the same ones I go through every time I report on a different culture, so I’m not sure why I am ever surprised. Iranians worry about their prosperity, the education and prospects for their kids and their health and safety. Like many cultures, freedom of speech is not an absolute for them but in sense they crave more liberties than they have. And they are often fearful of speaking their mind. The population that is avowedly anti-western exists, but it appears to be a minority, and more suburban than urban.

‎I was surprised at the degree to which women chafe at being told how to dress, even if they may choose to dress conservatively. I was particularly surprised by a movement to allow women to attend sporting events, which is opposed by hardliners and supported by the president. There’s a bit of a social media battle–replete with name calling–going on between some senior government officials and clergy about women’s liberties. I didn’t know of or expect that.

FBDC: How much attention are Iranians paying to 2016 presidential campaign and comments by candidates on the US-Iran negotiations?
Velshi: Virtually none. There’s some awareness that Republicans don’t support a deal and are unabashedly pro-Israel and that they will try to scuttle a deal, but American foreign policy (particularly as if applies to Israel and Saudi Arabia) seems to be a much bigger deal than U.S. presidential politics to Iranians. Iran also has a vibrant domestic political scene (not entirely free, but vibrant), which occupies a good amount of political space. Everyone knows about Hillary Clinton, but it wasn’t an issue that came up even in my extensive discussions about America (or Amrika, as they call it).

FBDC: You’ve met with an interesting and diverse array of people while in Iran, from female government officials to a former participant in the U.S. embassy occupation. What was the thinking behind choosing these particular people?
Velshi: Iran seems conscious of the fact that women were a big part of the revolution. Women make up the majority of university graduates and students, and half the workforce. It’s a well-educated society. But the paradox of liberties for women is striking. Women face glass ceilings–though I’m told that, theoretically, a woman could be the President of Iran–and lower pay for equal work. I requested a lot of interviews and far more than I expected to get. I wanted a wide range politically, socio-economically, culturally and demographically. I wanted to try, in two weeks, to get a representative sample. It’s tough to do.

This is a big diverse country. I didn’t get conservative clerics or speak to too many political critics and one certainly can’t find critics of the religious leadership willing to speak within Iran. There’s a danger of thinking that true dissent doesn’t exist inside of Iran or that it’s been silenced post 2009. It hadn’t entirely, but it’s been pushed underground.

FBDC: What did you learn from these interviews?
Velshi: That the gulf between Iran and the West is huge. Many Iranians felt cheated out of their oil by the British, and out of their democracy by the United States, which toppled their government and propped up the Shah. Yet there are many Iranians who don’t feel the revolution has lived up to its promise of a just society. Iranians seem to like America (they talk of their relatives in Tehrangeles!) and drink lots of Coke and I see more stores selling iPhones here than I do in some American cities, but many hold America responsible for Iran not having lived up to its economic and industrial potential.

I visited an art gallery with an exhibit (that could have been in New York) that experimented with pushing the boundaries of drawing with graphite. Fascinating, in a country that, generally speaking, doesn’t encourage the pushing of creative and artistic boundaries.

And then there’s the issue of Israel. Iranians seem to go out of their way to say that [former president Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad was probably in over his skis on the Holocaust denial front, but the concern seems to be more about why he created the PR mess he did rather than whether he was wrong. Iran has somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews (and one Jewish member of parliament, whom I interviewed) who seem ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from other Iranians. One wonders why they remain in what appears to be such a hostile environment but the few I spoke to said it’s their culture as much as anyone else’s and they get by just fine. Iran is truly a nation of paradoxes and it probably serves the west to understand it better.

FBDC: What are some moments during these interviews that stood out?
Velshi: Iran is overflowing with anger, swollen with disappointment and anxious for progress. And some version of that “national sentiment” came through in almost every conversation. The hostage-taker-turned-vice-president asked me if I knew of the town in Pennsylvania in which she grew up. The ailing founder of a reformist political party told me of how he gets his cancer treatment at Sloane Kettering in New York. The carpet merchants in dusty conservative south Tehran told me more about American muscle cars than any American kid has ever told me.

I was warmly welcomed to the 10,000-person strong Friday prayers, led by an Ayatollah, where I heard isolated calls of “marg bar anrika” (death to america). The Jewish MP had pictures of three bearded men on his office wall: Khomeini, Khamanei, and Moses. I went to a kosher restaurant to interview the owner and escape another dinner of kebab and rice — and I ate kebab and rice. Everyone was proud of Iran, and absolutely everyone hates the sanctions. They all have dreams about what Iran can be if it joins the global community. But Iranians are as distrustful of the West as the west is of Iran, and no deal struck in Vienna is going to change that anytime soon.