Reporter's Notebook: By Mahtab
Farid, Washington, DC
My Washington reporting journey started with President George W. Bush's presidency.
I have covered countless press conferences, seminars, panels, congressional hearings that included introducing, passing, or blocking of numerous congressional bills about Iran. I also followed and covered the United Nations Security Council Resolutions against Iran and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's multiple visits to the United Nations.
there are couple of terms that sticks out in my mind during the past eight years
of Bush's presidency on Iran is "state sponsor of terrorism," "weapons of mass
destruction," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
and separating Iranian people from the Iranian government.
When President Bush became the US President, the former Iranian reformist President Mohammad Khatami was in power. Khatami was elected in 1997 and was re elected in 2001.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the Iranian President in 2005 which was during President Bush's second term. So President Bush had experienced both a reformist and a hardliner Iranian administration.
Ahmadinejad at United Nations in New York
September 11 tragic events in 2001 changed everything. Suddenly, United States was attacked in her backyard. About 3000 lives were lost and US had to reshape, rethink, and reform its policies and protect the nation. Department of Homeland Security was formed and for the first time, a cabinet position in the White House for Secretary of Homeland security was created.
Meanwhile President Bush's administration lost hope in the reformists after the constant reports on violations of human rights, arresting of journalists, intellectuals and political activists in Iran.
In January of 2002, President Bush called Iran as part of an "axis of evil" during his first State of the Union address.
He said, "Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."
"The axis of evil" term became the headline of every newspaper, press conference and policy panels in DC. It was inevitable to escape the "axis of evil" speech. Some thought it sent a strong message to Iran. Some thought "the axis of evil" speech killed every opportunity for normalizing the US Iran relations. Think tanks capitalized on the speech and held numerous panels to discuss what the term "axis of evil" meant and how is that going to affect the US policy towards Iran.
Without a doubt George W. Bush has been one of the
vocal critics of the Iranian government and had always tried to separate Iranian
people from the Iranian government.
July 12, 2002, he sent a statement to criticize the Iranian regime and reached
out to the Iranian people. President Bush said, "As Iran's people move towards a
future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better
friend than the United States of America." President Bush added,
"Iranian students, journalists and Parliamentarians are still arrested, intimidated, and abused for advocating reform or criticizing the ruling regime. Independent publications are suppressed. And talented students and professionals, faced with the dual specter of too few jobs and too many restrictions on their freedom, continue to seek opportunities abroad rather than help build Iran's future at home. Meanwhile, members of the ruling regime and their families continue to obstruct reform while reaping unfair benefits."
Following this statement, I contacted the White House and asked Sean McCormick for an interview with President Bush or an official regarding the statement. White House coordinated an interview with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who could speak Farsi.
December 18, 2002, Radio Farda, US funded 24 hours of radio program in Farsi to Iran was launched.
On December 20, 2002, President Bush sent warm greetings to the people of Iran through Radio Farda. He said,
"For many years, the United States has helped bring news and cultural broadcasts for a few hours every day to the Iranian people via Radio Freedom. Yet the Iranian people tell us that more broadcasting is needed, because the unelected few who control the Iranian government continue to place severe restrictions on access to uncensored information. So we are now making our broadcast available to more Iranians by airing news and music and cultural programs nearly 24 hours a day, and we are pleased to continue Voice of America and VOA TV services to Iran."
President Bush added, "If Iran respects its international obligations and embraces freedom and tolerance, it will have no better friend than the United States of America."
July 5, 2003, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)
had a mandate from the White House to expand the Voice of America Persian
television programs to Iran. As a result, "News and Views" the daily television
program in Farsi was launched on July 5, 2003.
Currently, the VOA Persian service is called, "Persian News Network" or PNN which has 7 hours of broadcast every day to Iran.
October 10, 2003, Shirin Ebadi won the Noble peace prize. On October 11, 2003, President Bush released a statement congratulating Shirin Ebadi.
Shirin Ebadi being interviewed by Mahtab Farid
"The United States congratulates Shirin Ebadi on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize -- a first for an Iranian, and for a Muslim woman. The prize recognizes her lifetime of championing human rights and democracy. I strongly support the Iranian people's aspirations for freedom, and their desire for democracy. The future of Iran must be decided by the people of Iran. Americans look forward to the day when a free Iran stands as an example of tolerance, prosperity, and democracy in the Middle East and around the world."
On March 8, 2004, when I was covering the "International Day of Women" at the White House, once again President Bush mentioned Shirin Ebadi in his speech. He said,
"Shirin Ebadi, who has spent a lifetime championing human rights, receives recognition. The United States pledges to promote democracy and human rights around the globe, and to help those who struggle to see the same light of liberty now dawning on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan."
In December 2003, when the horrific Earthquake happened in the city of Bam in Iran, and destroyed the entire city, President Bush extended his condolences and deployed humanitarian assistance to the people of Iran. The White House said, "The United States will continue to work with Iranian authorities and international relief organizations to help the people of Iran during this challenging time."
The United States deployed numerous experts in urban search and rescue, and facilitated a disaster response team.
President Bush didn't stop criticizing the Iranian regime. Although he kept on supporting the Iranian people and the Iranian dissidents but he continued to put the pressure on the Iranian regime.
In his speeches or during his press conferences, he demanded that Iran meet its commitments and not develop nuclear weapons. He said, "America is committed to keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes."
Of course the Iranian officials kept releasing statements denying any illegal behavior and in fact stated that it was their right to develop nuclear technology and not nuclear weapon.
On July 12, 2005, the White House released a statement and called for the unconditional release of Akbar Gandji, the investigative reporter in Iran. The statement said, "Mr. Gandji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
May 2006, US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice introduced the "incentive package." She said: "If Iran suspends its uranium enrichment which is an international demand not just an American one, then United States is prepared to reverse its policy and I will meet with my Iranian counterpart any time any where."
Iranian officials did not accept the "incentive
package" and said, they will not stop the enrichment of uranium. They also
repeatedly said, the nuclear activities are for peaceful purpose.
July 2006, Akbar Gandji is the Iranian investigative journalist who published articles revealing the murder of dissident authors known as "Chain Murders of Iran," spent five years in Evin prison. When Gandjid went on hunger strike, the White House sent a statement.
"During his now month-long hunger strike, Mr.
demonstrating that he is willing to die for his right to express his opinion."
In summer of 2006 in the United States, Gandji received one of the most prestigious journalism awards called, International John Aubuchon award for his courageous reporting on top government official in Iran from the National Press Club in DC.
I remember when they announced his name; the entire
crowd gave him a standing ovation.
I approached him and asked him, how do you feel that you were jailed in Iran for your reporting now you are receiving an award here in the US?
said, "We have to realize you are talking about two very different societies. I
hope one day our own country Iran will award its journalists and freedom seeking
individuals an award not other countries."
September 2006, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visited United States, while US diplomats posed sanctions on Iran. Khatami became the highest ranking Iranian official to visit the US capital since Jimmy Carter was the US president.
A crowd of Iranian dissidents gathered outside of National Cathedral in DC, as he gave his speech and there were a lot of oppositions to his visit.
Khatami with Mahtab Farid
In 2006, I traveled to Iran to see things first hand. I was surprised to see how little we the news media knew about Iran. When you live in the west you only see and hear the major news network discuss the nuclear issues and terrorism. It is completely a different picture inside.
The young people of Iran want to be part of the international community. They suffer from lack of jobs. The economy was the main issue in the country. There were also countless social issues such as air pollution, prostitution and drug addiction. Young people of Iran were eager to be accepted to the universities and the major of their choice.
Most of these young students didn't care about any of the issues we discuss in the west. They also wanted the world to know, young Iranians are modern and have the same interests as any other young person around the world.
It almost felt that they live in a shell and don't bother with politics. There was a sense of hopelessness, and lack of enthusiasm. The young Iranians were tired of the opposition media and opposition groups which they didn't have much trust in.
I was impressed to see vibrant young Iranians were hungry to learn about the outside world. Internet is their best friend, but access to the Internet is not as easy or as cheap. The connection is slow. Recently, I learned the Internet speed has improved. A number of sites in Iran are filtered. So, if the experts, politicians, and opposition groups think their so called, "informative websites" are useful, I must disappoint you, You Are Wrong....
One other point that I learned during my traveling to the Middle East was the influence of Iran in many of the neighboring countries. When I went to Southern Lebanon in 2006, the Iranian officials were praised like rock stars. In fact there were souvenirs in the gift shop in South Beirut with the Iranian official pictures.
To the public diplomacy and State Department folks, I have to say even though millions of dollars are spent to reach out to the people in the Middle East through different initiatives and US funded broadcasts, one major point is still missing.
The messages sent to these countries don't resonate with the people. Hiring people with impressive resumes and Ivy league graduates don't necessarily solve the fundamental issues in the Middle East. Religion is a prominent factor and has become a cultural issue. You need people who could speak the language, understand the religion, and know the culture. Middle East initiatives to empower the women and the kids wouldn't be accomplished without the proper knowledge and culture of the area.
Those are some of my personal experiences that I wanted to share with you. Back to US Iran relations during Bush's administration, in a few lines,
United States and Iran have not officially met for the past 30 years. The only meetings between the two countries that took place were on Ambassadorial level to discuss the reconstruction in Afghanistan and the issues in Iraq.
The two countries were never able to hold direct
talks, because Iran
didn't accept any
which was to stop enriching uranium.
Without a doubt Iran has been a major US foreign policy topic and remains to be a prominent topic for the incoming administration.
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