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 From the American side, it seems a fanatical or at the very least, an out-of-date theocracy.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).