US Jewish journalist tells of relative freedom on rare trip to Iran

An American-Jewish journalist just back from an unprecedented week-long reporting trip to Islamist Iran described a relatively free hand in choosing who to interview and what questions to ask, despite being assigned a government minder.

In a longform multimedia piece published Wednesday in the Jewish Daily Forward, the newspaper’s deputy managing editor Larry Cohler-Esses detailed the process of obtaining a visa to the Islamic Republic — with the help of a member of the Iranian Jewish community who wrote a letter on his behalf — and his subsequent conversations in Iran with ayatollahs, government officials and regular Iranians on Jews in general and Israel in particular.

“Though I had to work with a government fixer and translator, I decided which people I wanted to interview and what I would ask them. Far from the stereotype of a fascist Islamic state, I found a dynamic push-and-pull between a theocratic government and its often reluctant and resisting people,” wrote Cohler-Esses, the first journalist from a US Jewish newspaper to be granted a visa since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

And while “no one had anything warm to say” about Israel, he identified a divided official line on the Jewish state.

Larry Cohler-Esses (Courtesy)

“Pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several [officials] were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum,” he wrote.

Ordinary Iranians interviewed for the piece were more concerned with domestic issues, such as high unemployment, the sluggish economy and the brain drain of young people, but also voiced their opinions on Jews and Israel.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addressing  the nation after a nuclear agreement was announced in Vienna, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The election two years ago of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani coupled with the recently signed nuclear agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has significantly impacted average Iranians and their willingness to speak more openly, he indicated.

“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even happy to be filmed doing so,” Cohler-Esses wrote.

“The people of Iran want in some way to show the world that what’s going on in the last years is not the will of the Iranian people but of the Iranian government,” Nader Qaderi was quoted as saying outside his butcher shop in Tehran. “We have no hostility against Israel,” he said.

“We as human beings have no intentions of attacking them. Since ancient times… we lived together peacefully with them, as friends as brothers and as neighbors. We don’t see any reason for a war. Not with the people of Israel and not with the government,” Qaderi said in the piece.

Qaderi also voiced skepticism that the nuclear agreement would improve the lives of the Iranian people. “Our main concern now is freedom! I think what we need most of all now is political intelligence. People have no clear idea of what they want. This is the real struggle,” he said.

An Iranian man flashes the victory sign as an other holds the Iranian national flag during celebration in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015, after Iran's nuclear negotiating team struck a deal with world powers in Vienna. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)

This sentiment was echoed during an interview with a locksmith in Shiraz, in south-central Iran, who said that while people generally favor the agreement, he doesn’t think it “will make any special change in the lives of people. The power holders will not allow it to benefit the people.”

The locksmith, Hassan Sha’aeri, also said that he doesn’t have enmity toward Israel, and warned that if Iran were to attack the Jewish state, “Israel will not stay motionless, and the United States will not stay motionless.”

Another merchant had less positive things to say and seemed to toe the line of the Iranian regime.

“We, the Muslims, respect the Jews as followers of his holiness Moses because Moses-Moshe was one of the important prophets. But the problem that today exists in the Middle East, and the hostility that has been created against the Zionists and the Jews, the Jews of Israel are responsible for it. That is, the Zionists. Of course not all the Jews, only the Zionists. Because for years they places millions of Palestinians in cages,” this merchant said on camera.

Cohler-Esses also described some bizarre moments with security officials.

At the airport, a guard told him “more of you should come!” after checking his US passport. On a visit to the burial site of Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “and on being told I was an American Jew, the Revolutionary Guard on duty waved me through with a huge grin, allowing me to enter with my camera, against the rules. One of his comrades posed happily for a photo with me.”

Another run-in with a Revolutionary Guard involved him asking what Americans think of the IRGC, only to respond with bafflement when Cohler-Esses replied that most Americans are probably afraid of them.

“America is a rich country with advanced technology, a huge army, enormous size and a large population,” the guard said. “Iran is a small country with a small army, much less developed technology and much poorer. Why would Americans be afraid?”



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