December 22nd, 2006 04:36 EST
American Television Viewers Get New Perspective on Modern Iran
Washington -- “Very little in Iran is as it first appears to be,” veteran U.S. journalist Ted Koppel observed in his two-hour documentary “Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation,” which aired on U.S. television November 19.
American viewers watching the program received a more in-depth look at Iran than usually is available on the evening news, which tends to focus on the Iranian government’s nuclear activities.
In interviews throughout Iran, Koppel paid special attention to young people under 30 -- the majority of Iran’s population -- and women, who now make up more than half of Iranian university students.
“Women and the young continue to frighten the fundamentalists and inspire the reformers,” Koppel said in his narration. His program showed Americans the modern, computer-savvy society -- quick-witted and fluent in English -- that exists beneath the surface of the religion-based authoritarian government making daily headlines.
It is a far cry from the image still held by many Americans of Iran in 1979, when student revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for 444 days. Koppel achieved much of his fame after his program Nightline debuted in 1980 to track the fate of the American hostages.
The seizure of the diplomats “tops the list of American grievances,” Koppel said, but he added that Iranians also have their own grievances. Americans learned that Iranians remember the U.S. role in the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s government, U.S. support of the Pahlavi regime during the Cold War and the U.S. Navy’s 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which killed 290 aboard the civilian airliner.
“We repeat, reinforce and become prisoners of our stereotypes of one another,” Koppel said. “They do it. We do it.”
PROGRAM PORTRAYS YOUNG AS BEING UNCONCERNED WITH POLITICS
The toll of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war “shaped a generation,” Koppel said, noting 70 percent of the population is under 30.
He described Iran’s young as wanting to have fun, socialize at parties, wear stylish, hip clothes and find prosperity through a good career. Typically, the young are not concerned with politics, he said.
“Not knowing or caring who the president of Iran is could be an advantage, a layer of protection these days,” Koppel observed. The film shows teenage boys skateboarding and playing pool, and young women smoking cigarettes and engaged in online computer chats, scenes that might be common in any American city.
Restrictions on the interaction between men and women make dating difficult. One film producer Koppel interviewed spent a week in jail because he was caught with his girlfriend. “We were not married, so we were not supposed to have coffee together,” the man explained.
Koppel also speculated that changes could be coming to the patriarchal society because women, who attend university in growing numbers, likely will not be willing to fulfill traditional female roles at home.
Many of Iran’s young people are full participants in the information age and are finding self-expression through Web logs, or “blogs,” that provide an unregulated outlet to express their opinions and discuss daily life, even politics. October 2005 statistics estimate approximately 40,000 to 110,000 active Iranian blogs.
“I can write my articles, my opinions, which I am not allowed to talk about,” said a female reporter who described blogging as “alternate media.” She is careful in her vocabulary after having a previous blog shut down by an Iranian government filtering system that targets specific words.
Koppel noted that the Iranian government’s filtering mechanism allows photos of a scantily clad U.S. celebrity but blocks the Voice of America Web site.
“Iran is second only to China in the number of Web sites it filters. Still, it has one of the world’s liveliest blogospheres,” Koppel said.
MOST IRANIANS DESIRE NORMALIZED RELATIONS WITH U.S., KOPPEL SAYS
The persistent Western media image of Iranians chanting “Death to America” suggests that Americans and Iranians can interact only in conflict. Yet young people told Koppel they like America and the American people -- one person even expressed support for President Bush.
A veteran of the 1978-79 revolution told Koppel his poll found 75 percent of Iranians desire normalized relations with the United States. The poll might have proved too revealing, because the man subsequently was sentenced to two years in prison.
The infamous chant “Death to America,” while ubiquitous in the film, is presented as a tired, prompted, unenthusiastic reflex in an image of schoolchildren coached to repeat the chant, but who do so “without much passion, without much emphasis, without any real understanding.” Koppel’s footage even shows one boy yawning.
IRANIANS WILLING TO CRITICIZE GOVERNMENT, BUT FACE “INVISIBLE RED LINES”
In a November 19 interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Koppel said Iran has “a different feel” than other totalitarian countries. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen by some Iranians as the champion of the poor, but by others as hopelessly ignorant of world affairs.
“Iranians are eager to talk. They will criticize their president, some of them just as savagely and with the same kind of sarcasm that people … [in the United States use to] criticize President Bush,” even to the point of drawing analogies between the two leaders, Koppel said, adding, “That surprised me a little bit.”
However, “if you cross some of these invisible red lines that they have, you can be jailed for the most innocuous things. And you can be brutalized for the most innocuous things,” Koppel said. “It’s not an easy place to live.”
The control exercised by religious authorities is apparent throughout Koppel’s documentary. In Iran, religion is “the central controlling element in this republic,” Koppel says in the narration, relating that a doctor told him, “In the old days … we prayed at home and went out to drink. Now we drink at home and go out to pray.”
Looking ahead, former Iranian foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi told Koppel he believes Iranians must educate themselves about democracy.
“I believe democracy is a learning process,” Yazdi said. “It is not something you can buy, you can export [or] you can import. And nobody will teach democracy in the classrooms. Through our own experience we have to learn.”
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer