The Islamic Republic of Iran turned 30 this week. Journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni has spent years living and reporting there. In her new book, Honeymoon in Tehran, she writes about the many difficulties journalists face in Iran. Chief among them: the government minder, who Moaveni calls "Mr.X" in her memoir.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thirty years ago this week, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s revolution, ended his 14-year exile outside of Paris, boarded an Air France flight and flew home to Tehran. Soon after his return, the Islamic Republican of Iran was born. That was in 1979. Journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni was just two years old at the time and growing up a world away in California, but as an adult she spent many years reporting in Iran. In her new book, Honeymoon in Tehran, Moaveni writes about living and working in the Iranian capital. One challenge she faced – her government minder, a man who for years intimidated her, scrutinized her work and had ultimate say over her freedom to do it. She called him “Mr. X” because she never knew his real name. Their relationship was both terrifying and bizarre.
AZADEH MOAVENI: I think I describe it in my book as having a jealous boyfriend -
[LAUGHTER] - because that’s what it would often feel like – you know, phone calls where he would complain, where have you been? You haven't called me. I don't know what you've been doing. It was a very hectoring relationship that was mostly conducted on the phone. I would call or he would call and we were meant to not introduce ourselves, and so this created this very sort of bizarre intimacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I'm still wondering how does it work?
AZADEH MOAVENI: He would often ask me to meet in empty hotel apartments in secluded parts of town. And he would always have someone else, so we were usually never alone, but it was always very scary because I felt like I was disappearing into a building where, you know, I might never emerge. I mean, who would hear me? And I always had a code with my driver who would take me. You know, he would call 10 minutes into the meeting and I would say, yes, I'll be back for dinner. That meant everything was fine. So that was my only escape route that I had [LAUGHING] constructed for myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you hate this guy?
AZADEH MOAVENI: Mr. X was both good cop and bad cop, so when he acted as though he wanted to try and sincerely help me, I felt grateful to him. And at moments when he was being the horrible intimidating Mr. X, I did. I despised him. I felt cornered and absolutely at his mercy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that in Iran there are no neutral stories. Give me an example of a story that you thought might be neutral but wasn't.
AZADEH MOAVENI: I thought I would write about how Iranian classical music was making a comeback. The government was very deliberately trying to present itself as being culturally tolerant. But when you write about this, for example, you have to write that in 1979 they banned instruments being shown on television, musicians were banned from carrying instruments in public, and so it seemed to me there was no way of avoiding this troubled revolutionary history in anything that I could write.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toward the end of your memoir, you’re informed that a trial has been started against you for your reporting. Why, and what does that even mean in Iran?
AZADEH MOAVENI: That means that there’s a paranoid element of the regime that considers you or your work as part of the American plot [LAUGHS] to overthrow the government, and that therefore whatever you've been doing, whether it’s journalism or academic work or think tank work is suddenly going to be trumped up in a court and presented as some sort of plot to undermine national security or to defame the regime, and in a handful of cases has brought the accused individuals into prison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happened with your trial?
AZADEH MOAVENI: Nothing ever came to pass. I sort of holed up inside the house for two months, quaking in fear, and after two months I went back to the government press office and everything was sunny and as though I had never been told this. So I just assumed that it was the worst of, you know, a long series of scare tactics and I tried to persuade myself to go on as though I'd never heard such a thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did the word “Kafkaesque” go through your mind? I mean, [LAUGHS] one theme that emerges from your book is the arbitrary nature of these regulations against citizens, including and especially journalists. You can never be sure whether your reporting will get you into deep trouble or just be totally ignored.
AZADEH MOAVENI: It’s impossible to anticipate what is going to upset or aggravate a censor in the Islamic Republic. The most benign, trivial thing that you might, as a journalist, think would never be the one thing that would get you in trouble can sometimes end up being the one definitive thing that is always held against you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write a lot in the book about how deeply you wished to live and work as a journalist in Iran and of your frustration, towards the end of the book, when concerns for your own safety forced you and your family to move to London. In retrospect, what do you make of the fact that you really tried it and it just didn't work?
AZADEH MOAVENI: It’s quite disheartening for me. It was, for me, the definitive moment that I realized, you know, Iran right now is a country that doesn't belong to me and that I can't belong to. Maybe I wasn't steely enough, you know, to work under that kind of pressure, but it was very painful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your government minder tells you at one point that you've been allowed to work in Iran even after the publication of your last book, Lipstick Jihad, which criticized the regime. He said, in effect, how can you think of us as so repressive if we've let you come back and report?
AZADEH MOAVENI: It was a fair enough point, and I conceded it at the time, because for a government that’s so often portrayed as just black and white, as utterly repressive, there’s very often a significant amount of freedom accorded to us. To me, it shows that the Islamic Republic is evolving. One thing I want to point out is that, for example, in 1953, when there was an American and British coup against the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran at the time, journalists were on the payroll as part of that coup. They participated. They wrote newspaper stories that helped bring about the downfall of, you know, the only democrat that’s been leading the country in the last century. And that’s a history that the government lives with every day. And so, even though they're quite paranoid, to a ridiculous degree, they have a recent history of being plotted against by people just like me. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How well-served are Iranians by their own press? How good a job are they able to do?
AZADEH MOAVENI: The press in Iran, even since the '40s and '50s, before the revolution, has just often been unprofessional. It’s been propaganda, and that’s something that has been bemoaned by Iranians for decades, even before this Islamic revolution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, courageous papers start up and are shuttered all the time.
AZADEH MOAVENI: They do. It’s constantly happening. I mean, even just in the last month and a half, for example, a paper very courageously printed a statement by a student group that called Hamas a terrorist organization. You know, to print such a thing under a government that’s Hamas’ number-one cheerleader is very brave. And it was shut down, but everyone read it. And these are things that will slowly bring about plodding change in Iran.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Azadeh, thank you very much.
AZADEH MOAVENI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Azadeh Moaveni is a contributing writer for Time Magazine. Her new book, Honeymoon in Tehran, was published this week by Random House.