Steve Inskeep of NPR went to Iran for a short while several weeks ago to report on the public mood following the JCPOA. His trip was widely reported on NPR and on February 19 he got to repeat a summary of his conclusions on the PBS NewsHour. Mr. Inskeep speaks no Persian, has little or no knowledge of Iranian culture. His reporting on Iran has been relentlessly negative. Certainly there are a lot of concerns, especially about the future of economic activity, but the message Mr. Inskeep chose to report is one of doom and gloom and pessimism. Maybe he hopes for a post in a Republican administration.
What Mr. Inskeep seems not to understand is Iranian discourse; and he is a very bad interviewer. His inquiries were superficial and clearly biased. In face-to-face situations such as he was documenting where he asks people point blank whether the economy or their personal circumstances are good or not, they regularly say no. And this is the gist of his entire report. Each episode features yet another person who thinks the economy will never recover, that the JCPOA will yield no results.
But Iranians have been answering in this manner for decades--maybe centuries. Before the Revolution, after the Revolution. During the Revolution. When asked directly about such matters, the normal response is to portray a glass half-empty. Perhaps it is fatalism, perhaps a fear of expressing too much positive prediction lest evil be lurking to shatter one's hopes. But it is a discourse style, not an accurate representation of true thought.
When one looks at life in Iran there is of course good cause for pessimism, but there is also palpable evidence of economic progress and social change. In one of his reports he features two women who own a successful fashion store. They are dressed in stylish clothing in bright colors, and they own their own business. Even twenty years ago, this was a rarity. When he reports how bad they think Iran is, his reporting is belied by the very circumstances under which he is carrying out his interview.
He reports on successful businessmen and officials whose main complaint is that they are not more successful than they are.
He makes a great deal of corruption, and there is no doubt that corruption is very widespread in Iran, but it is also the case that expressing envy of others is a national sport in Iran, where social hierarchy is a dominant dimension in social life. If there are others who are doing better than ones self, corruption is nearly always stated as a prime reason.
Countering this negativity regarding status and the future are moments of great kindness, charity and joy in Iranian life. On balance Iranians find many moments of happiness even in hardship. Mr. Inskeep never reported on the hospitality of Iranians, the pleasure in social occasions or the positive enthusiasm with which he was undoubtedly greeted. Nor does he say even one word about the beautifully restored historical and natural sites in places like Isfahan and Shiraz that give such pleasure to Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Americans who have never been to Iran would on hearing his reports be led to think of it as a sour, dark place with glowering negative people. Those of us who know Iran know how to look beyond the discourse and see what is really there with a balance of positive and negative.
I note that Mr. Inskeep is clever and canny, but looking at his reporting over the years one cannot conclude that he is much of a friend of Iran, or even-handed in his reporting. His reporting on the nuclear program was continually sensationalistic. implying in every report that Iran was up to no good. He once featured an interview with neo-conservative extraordinaire Michael Ledeen, who went to Orange County to solicit funds to overthrow the Tehran government as if Mr. Ledeen was entirely reasonable in his views.
I have been dismayed at this reporting, and must conclude that Mr. Inskeep is no well-wisher for Iran or the Iranian people. I hope others will listen to his skewed broadcasts and bring a bit of equanimity to the interpretation of his reporting.