What It Was Like To Report From Iran Last Week

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 8:10 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A third day of anger on the streets of Tehran today. This after the Iranian government acknowledged on Saturday that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner last week, killing 176 people. Iran had denied responsibility for the crash for days. Now that the government's reversed itself, protesters have been out shouting angry slogans against Iran's supreme leader and have faced off against riot police. Now, this is the latest twist in Iran's story, which as topped our show for the last week or so. And, Mary Louise, you know this as well, because you were in Iran last week.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I was indeed. I got to witness firsthand the events that led up to these latest protests, including arriving in time for the funeral procession through Tehran for General Soleimani.

CORNISH: And this is such an extraordinary moment to witness. I want to just pause for a second and talk to you, right? I mean, you're back here in the studio. And I want to learn more about your trip. First of all, how'd you get a visa? - because so few journalists, so few American journalists, are inside Iran these days.

KELLY: I had been asking for months to get a visa - months and months and months. I got word on New Year's Day, January 1, that maybe things were looking good, and things were looking possible. So we rushed to book flights for two days later. And in that two-day window was when General Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike, which then totally changed the situation. We weren't sure if Iran would still give us visas. We weren't sure if NPR would let us go because the security situation had just gotten so much more risky. In the end, Iran visas are rare, so we pushed. And we managed to work through that and figure out a way that everybody was comfortable. And then we landed at just an amazing moment in the wee hours of Monday morning, which is when the funeral procession for Soleimani that drew hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Tehran...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: We're in these crowds that are in just frantic, raw anger and grief, a lot of it directed at America. So it was the most fascinating and most challenging moment you can imagine.

CORNISH: You're landing in the middle of these tensions, though - threats to America, threats of retaliation. So were you actually able to report freely?

KELLY: We were, actually, surprisingly so. We were. It's nothing like reporting from North Korea, where I have also reported from, where you land. And the second you have cleared passport control, there's a government minder who materializes and who never leaves your side. In Iran, you do have to work through an official media company. They assign you an interpreter. But if you want to organize an interview on your own and you don't need interpretation, you can go do that on your own. You can catch the metro. You can ride a taxi. We didn't have anybody telling us where we had to go. There was only one place where we were barred from going as Americans, and it was this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: So this is outside Friday prayers at Imam Khomeini Mosalla, which is this giant prayer complex. We needed official paperwork to go inside, and we got it. We had all the stamps. We had everything done. And they still wouldn't let us in, so we ended up having to interview people on the sidewalk outside as they went in.

CORNISH: Any challenges as a female journalist?

KELLY: Not particularly - there are, you know, Iranian women spread throughout the professional and social strata in Iran. There are women in parliament. There are women in high-flying jobs, very highly educated women. Government officials there are certainly used to dealing with women. My second morning there, we were granted a sit-down with the foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif. And so I was able to question him directly about what Iran's next move might be to retaliate for for Soleimani's killing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAVAD ZARIF: The United States has committed a grave error - a grave error. And it will pay for that grave error.

KELLY: Can you be specific?

ZARIF: Well, I was very specific.

KELLY: He was not very specific, Audie (laughter), by the way. And it was that night that Iran fired missiles at military bases where American troops are housed in Iraq. You know, to your question about women, there's another way to answer that, which is this. I have often felt when reporting from Muslim-majority countries that I have access to spaces that our male counterparts would not. And I certainly felt that in Iran. And certainly on this trip, we had an all-female team. Me, my producer, our interpreter, our photographer - all women. So we arranged one story to visit a beauty parlor in Tehran which is off-limits to men. Normal life goes on even when your country appears to possibly be on the brink of war. I actually put a question about that to one of the women working there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KELLY: Do people - when you're, you know, cutting their hair and doing the color, do they want to talk about politics and war and news? Or do they want to forget about it and talk about something else?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, I mean...

KELLY: You're both shaking your heads. No, no, no, no, no, no.

So that is the salon owner and one of her staff. And it was fascinating because that is a story that our male counterparts just would never be able to get to.

CORNISH: So in the midst of all this, there was the Ukrainian plane crash at Tehran airport. How did that change the nature of things for you on the ground? What were you learning about?

KELLY: Well, I mean, it was clearly this awful, horrific tragedy. As questions grew over what had, in fact, happened with that plane, I sat down for an interview with another government official, an advisor to and a spokesman for Iran's President Rouhani. This is a guy named Ali Rabiei. And I put this direct question to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KELLY: Is there any chance that Iran accidentally downed this airplane?

ALI RABIEI: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: So he's saying there, Audie, no, it's impossible. We would have satellite footage showing if a missile had hit this plane. It didn't happen. And proof will emerge that this was an accident. That was Thursday. And then, of course, it took a day or two, and then Iran admitted that it was an Iranian missile that downed this plane. And they are blaming human error, which is just heartbreaking, of course, on so many levels.

CORNISH: As we mentioned at the top of this interview, you had been planning to get a visa for a long time. So you had some stories you had planned to pursue. News events took over. Talk about what you'd want to cover if you were able to go back.

KELLY: News events sure did took over - sure did take over. I didn't get to any of the stories that I had planned to do because of the deluge of news in Iran. I want to go back and tell stories that bring Iranian voices to Americans. I mean, there's just so little knowledge. There are no diplomatic ties between our countries. It is really tough for an American journalist to go there. It is even tougher for an Iranian journalist to come here to the States, so there's so much we just don't know about what is on Iranians' minds and how they view their lives and how they view their country's place in the world. And I have this huge story list of things I want to do that would try to get at some of that and bring some of those stories of just real people in Iran to our audience. So yeah, I'll be lobbying for another visa soon.

CORNISH: All right. We're looking forward to it. That's Mary Louise Kelly.

Mary Louise, thanks so much.

KELLY: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.