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Iran, diplomacy, JCPOA

Our Man in Rasht

An interview with journalist Kourosh Ziabari.

Words: Jon Letman
Pictures: Andrew Ling, in Grand Marais
Date:

In its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the Islamic Republic of Iran at 178 out of 180. Iranian journalists face some of the most oppressive conditions anywhere, and so it’s revealing to speak to a reporter from Iran who is willing to share their views on their own country without fear or filter.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist who has made a career explaining Iran to the world as a correspondent for Asia Times and through other international publications, such as Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, The New Arab, The National Interest, and others. His reporting has been translated into Arabic, French, German, Swedish, Turkish, and other languages.

Ziabari is based in the northwestern Iranian city of Rasht, the capital of Guilan Province along the Caspian Sea. He began his career writing for Iranian national papers, such as Shargh and Etemaad, and Iran’s oldest and most widely read science magazine Daneshmand for which he specialized in interviewing Nobel Prize laureates. Today he writes exclusively for non-Iranian publications.

This spring, Ziabari joined seven journalists from seven countries as a fellow in the World Press Institute’s annual fellowship, a nine-week program in which journalists visit multiple cities and towns across the United States, experiencing and learning about politics, society, education, and the US media landscape.

The fellowship, which began in 1962, welcomed Ziabari as its first Iranian journalist since 1979. While on a stop in St. Paul, Minnesota, he spoke with Inkstick contributor Jon Letman about his experiences and impressions of the United States and the prospect of improved relations with Iran.

You were the World Press Institute’s first Iranian fellow since the revolution in 1979. Can you tell me about that?

Kourosh Ziabari: Wherever I go, I try to advocate for the idea that after four decades of animosity, friction, and bitterness between Iran and the United States, a reconciliation should happen. It’s long overdue. There’s no reason for our two governments to be at loggerheads and daggers drawn because there is no real reason for the continuation of this cycle of antagonism.

I see huge interest in both countries among the public for the improvement of bilateral relations. I heard this from a diplomat we met, actually. A retired foreign service officer told me if there is one natural ally for the United States in the West Asia region, that should be Iran, not Saudi Arabia.

“Wherever I go, I try to advocate for the idea that after four decades of animosity, friction, and bitterness between Iran and the United States, a reconciliation should happen. It’s long overdue.”

The population in Iran is very much outward-looking, very much liberal thinking. Many young people are enthusiastic and interested in learning English because they want to watch American movies or listen to American music. These sorts of attitudes — I cannot say similarities — these cultural proclivities and interests can give rise to and lay the groundwork for the remodeling of Iran-US relations.

How would you assess American society’s understanding of Iranian society compared with how Iranians understand the United States?

It’s a bit unfortunate because many Americans’ understanding of Iran as a society and cultural entity is very much restricted to Iran’s nuclear program. As a result, not so many people know anything about Iranian culture, history, art, sciences, Iranian people, the geography, the size of the country, its population, its cuisines, and its music.

The American public doesn’t really know about Iran, and this is what I am being told: the general American public sometimes doesn’t care about the outside world. I might not have this conclusion, but even this is something that many editors and senior journalists kept [saying], that foreign reporting is not a major part of their function because it doesn’t have widespread appeal in American society.

I was reading a research survey that found more than 70% of Americans cannot find Iran on a world map. This is kind of mind-boggling against the backdrop of Iran being one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I can blame it partly on the education system here and the fact that the media are still driven by certain interests that emanate from their inner workings, and that corporations and influential lobbies still hold major sway over the functioning of the media.

It is unfortunate that the fate of Iran–US relations and the nature of the American public’s understanding of Iranian affairs is dependent on the revival of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or better known as the Iran nuclear deal] but that’s pretty much it. If this deal is revived, relations will be less tense, and there will be less hostility. The American media will start giving coverage to Iranian affairs in a more nuanced and more human way. There will be attention to Iranian arts, culture, sports, and sciences. People will learn because then the media will have less reason to focus on how hostile the relations tend to be and whether there is an imminent war.

You’ve written about how both the Iranian and American leadership have failed to seize opportunities or missed overtures to reconcile, with the two countries’ various leaders always seemingly out of synch and out of touch. Now you say there is a chance for Iran and the US to meet on the football (soccer) field this fall.

In the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Iran and the United States have been grouped and are scheduled to play in November. This is going to be the second encounter on the football pitch between the two countries. The first time was in 1998. That can draw increasing international attention to the relations between the two countries. Group B in the Qatar FIFA World Cup has been branded the most politically charged because the other team in the group is England, and the last team will be selected through the European playoffs from Scotland, Ukraine, or Wales.

Iran will play England and the United States. Iran and Britain are similarly at loggerheads. Relations have been very much fraught in recent years, so this athletic encounter can maybe, to some extent, ameliorate some of the tensions publicly or at least draw attention to the importance of track-two diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges.

While in the US, you visited the United Nations, Capitol Hill, major media outlets, top universities, think tanks, and other centers of legal and financial power and influence, but you also spent time in Grand Marais, a small town in Minnesota’s far north. What was that like?

In Grand Marais, I stayed a few days with a host family who has resided most of their lives in Minnesota. The husband was a retired US Airforce sergeant. Even though that area was one of the most conservative and ethnically homogenous places I traveled to in the United States — and given that they had never met somebody from Iran or scarcely met a Muslim —I received very good treatment. They didn’t have any kind of understanding of the challenging and tense state of relations between Iran and the United States, so they even didn’t know that there was no US embassy in Iran. When I told them, they were very much shocked.

Longhorns Ranch Austin
Longhorns Ranch in Austin, Texas.
Grand Marais – Witch Tree
Witch Tree at Grand Marais in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Richard Nixon Library’s Oval Office
At Richard Nixon Library’s Oval Office in Yorba Linda, California.
Stephen Colbert taping
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” taping in New York City.
Wyndwood Walls Miami
Wyndwood Walls in Miami, Florida.
Visiting Congress in Washington, DC.

I told them that the Iranian government is pedaling this hostile anti-American narrative and that was kind of offensive to them because they didn’t expect a foreign government to be on unfriendly terms with the United States. They believed that all countries in the world should be on good par with the United States. Then he asked me what do you think are the foreign international perceptions of the US government? Are there governments that are critical of the United States? I tried to explain the dynamics in the Middle East to them and emphasized that while the government of the country where I am from is fiercely anti-American, the public is not.

During your time in the United States, was there anything you found shocking or outrageous?

While we were in the US, several mass shootings happened, especially in New York. I am still unable to find a response to why the gun laws are not revised in a structural and serious manner. Social cohesion and national security are being gravely undermined as a result of loopholes in US gun laws and the selective interpretation of the Second Amendment. Sadly, the argument that is constantly rehashed by pro-gun voices is that gun ownership is a constitutional provision meant to protect the public from state violence, but the actual outcome is totally different.

In Iran, there is no mandate for the members of the public to possess guns, and given how fragmented and divided Iranian society is, I can imagine bloodshed and violence of epic proportions emerging if people were allowed to own guns.

Overall, my observations were very positive. I realized how diverse, how dynamic, and how inclusive a society can be, even having gone through four years of a president who openly denigrated minorities, disabled people, women, religious minorities, Muslims, and immigrants from Mexico. Still, American society, in my view, is receptive [and] tolerant. The general public, I believe, is interested in new beginnings, especially with the outside world, in learning more, or at least if they don’t know a lot, they listen and want to understand, which is admirable.

You primarily write for an international audience, but based on your recent experience in the US, do you think you’ll write something in Persian for Iranian readers?

There are a number of reasons I have decided not to engage with the Iranian media and not to write for an Iranian audience. One reason is that having been an international journalist most of my career, I don’t unfortunately — let me be frank — I don’t see enough reception and tolerance in Iranian society to write, especially because of how the government is feeding, funding, and nurturing cyber trolls and armies that are willing to suppress and attack people who promote Iran–US dialogue.

In Iran, there is no mandate for the members of the public to possess guns, and given how fragmented and divided Iranian society is, I can imagine bloodshed and violence of epic proportions emerging if people were allowed to own guns.

Also, if I am going to write for Iranian media or online publications, the traditional press, I should just simply censor myself all the time, and refuse to publicize my thoughts and observations in an honest and candid manner because of the entire spectrum of restrictions they have to go through in order to be able to publish something.

Some of my articles have been translated into Persian by some Iranian publications, and I really deplore how substandard these translations are. For example, if there is a true statement criticizing the Iranian government for mishandling the economy or for messing up relations with Persian Gulf countries or Europe or something similar, those statements are taken out or translated in such a poor way that the original meaning — and impact — is lost.

I recently wrote an article criticizing the Iranian government for throwing its weight behind Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and why it simply contradicted the longstanding Iranian government’s narrative on anti-imperialism because I believe it is an imperial war and it is a war of aggression. I also explained why sanctions on Russia are not going to work and are not deterring Putin from further aggression. The article was translated into Persian and the translator used the paragraphs in which I had argued the sanctions are not working to suggest that the article is saying that sanctions on Iran have not worked, so Iran is now victorious in its perennial battle with the United States. This is ridiculous. This is not how you translate.

I can understand how strenuous and how challenging a serious and robust translation job can turn out to be. And when you do it so frivolously and so nonchalantly, just giving yourself the liberty to translate whatever you want, it gives me the reasonable persuasion to stop being concerned about writing for Iranian publications and just do what I should do: Reach out to an international audience. Those Iranian readers who want to read my writings can just access them on international platforms.

Kourosh Ziabari’s comments were edited for length.

Jon Letman

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering people, politics, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region.

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