The Lesley Stahl Interview: Christiane Amanpour, at the Height of the Iranian Election Crisis

Image courtesy of CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour joined Lesley Stahl this morning for a wOw exclusive interview, in which these incredible journalists cover topics ranging from reporting on the crisis in Iran to the counterintuitively dominant role of women there to Christiane’s Iranian upbringing with her “accidental refugee” family. Read on.

LESLEY STAHL: Christiane, thank you so much for joining us this morning. I understand that you were in Iran and basically got thrown out. Is that true?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Well, look, the way it works is the Iranian officials give you a work permit. It usually lasts either a week or ten days. So I stayed for about ten days and I was asked to leave as it expired. You know, obviously CNN is a very visible, very sensitive news organization over there. So it’s closely monitoring, you know, everything we do and everything we say. And you probably noticed, in the last week or so, our correspondent on the ground has been banished from reporting, and also the government there, the foreign ministry there yesterday held a government-sponsored press conference accusing CNN and the BBC and others of promoting unrest. And this was obviously something that we at the network reject categorically. But it doesn’t offer restrictions on what we’re able to do.

LESLEY: Well obviously you’re watching the situation. You’re in London right now. I want to know your read. It’s the morning of Tuesday, June 23. What’s your read of what you’re seeing right now? Is this thing fizzling out in your opinion?

CHRISTIANE: Well, look, I’m not going to make a judgment … because you never know what could happen and what could spark anything. And as a reporter I prefer to just tell you what we saw. What we saw was extraordinary – unprecedented in 30 years. A lot of my reporting, which I’ve done over the years, suggests that the young people in Iran really do want their voice to be heard. And the truth of the matter is, this did not start as an attempt at revolution. In fact, many people in the West who would like to see regime change, including your own United States government, have always been frustrated and wondered what it is. Why is it that the people of Iran rise up against their government? The truth is, the so-called Green Movement, the Mousavi Movement, was all about reform from within. Mousavi himself is one of the establishment, a longtime revolutionary who was prime minister during some of the most difficult years during the Iran-Iraq war. I think that he is simply the vehicle for the young people’s frustration, for their desire for freedom, for their desire for reform. And who knows where it’s going to end? But if you compare it to the revolution in 1979, they had a leader. His name was Ayatollah Khomeini. He was exiled and he led the revolution from outside, and he tapped into what was a popular revolt. This right now is not that, at this precise moment.

LESLEY: What about the women? I am so struck by how the face of this current movement, more than any other factor, is dominated by women. Obviously this young girl who was killed, Neda Soltani, but also Mousavi’s wife, who campaigned with him, is a major figure, and was a university chancellor at some point. Even Rafsanjani’s daughter, who was arrested. How big is the women’s movement, first of all, in Iran? And how much of a factor have they been in keeping this going?

CHRISTIANE: The women have been a very dominant factor in Iran throughout the ages. It sounds counterintuitive because in some instances, in the court of law, no matter what law we’re talking about – criminal, divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc. – women count for only half of a man. But in society women have been very strong, and women have had a much more vibrant, participatory role in Iran than in any other of the countries around that region, including so many of the countries the United States calls friends and allies. And ever since the beginning, 30 years ago during the revolution, women were out on the streets en masse. Because it then became an Islamic society, traditional men could not keep the women out of the public sphere anymore, couldn’t keep their girls from going to school, because now it was an Islamic society and there was no reason to do that. So now 65 percent of university students are women. Women are in all sorts of spheres of professional endeavor. Women drive, they vote, they can hold a public position. Now, 34 million women are in Iran right now, out of a population of 70 million. Zahra Rahnavard, who is the wife of Mousavi, campaigned with her husband – a completely unusual experience. There’s never been such a thing where women campaigned with their husbands. It was a very sort of American, political sort of hand-me-down. And she ran with it. And she and her husband vowed that if they won there would be women in the Cabinet for the first time, they would lobby for reform of the law and the legal process so that women had their rights in a court of law, as well as in the rest of society. Faezeh Rafsanjani, who is the daughter of Hashemi Rafsanjani – I’ve been interviewing her for years. She was the head of the Olympic Committee, she’s been very, very active in women’s affairs and youth affairs in Iran. And she, again, is active right now. You know, she was arrested briefly on Saturday and then released. She’s a very powerful woman and has represented Iran in sports and, as I said, the Olympic Committee often. And go back to 1997 when the first Reformist President, Mohammed Khatami, was elected. It was the women and the young people of Iran that put him over the top. So, yes, the women have a huge, huge role to play and they’re getting more and more demanding because their numbers are growing and they won’t … and their demands are growing as well. And each of the candidates opposing Ahmadinejad, whether it was Mousavi or Karrubi or even Mohsen Rezaee, the Conservative. Each one said that they would pay attention to women’s rights if they were elected. So it is a very important movement.

LESLEY: And is it at the vanguard of what we’re seeing, or is it just part of it?

CHRISTIANE: I think it’s part of it. Look, women are very courageous, as you know. In all societies, women are often the strongest in civil wars, in famines, in crises like that. I remember during the siege of Bosnia, it was the women who kept the societies going and kept their families and their societies alive. In Iran, as I say, women have been very active for a long time, despite the fact that they have to wear the hijab and the veil, and despite the fact that in a court of law they’re not equal to men. But right now, if you look at what’s going on in the streets, it’s young people by and large, but it’s women in hijabs and chadors, as well as women in the more fashionable Western makeup and garb.

LESLEY: Let’s go back to Iran, but let me –

CHRISTIANE: Don’t forget also, Lesley, we have one Nobel Laureate in Iran and she’s a woman. The human-rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi.

LESLEY: And she’s part of this, too, right?

CHRISTIANE:
Well, she’s called for annulling the elections and a re-vote, and she’s constantly stood up for human rights, for women’s rights and, you know, when I was working at “60 Minutes” I profiled her and the case – back in 1998 – the very case that garnered her the Nobel Peace prize. So for many years, ten years or more, she’s been lobbying and working for women’s and children’s rights. It’s a very, very strong movement.

LESLEY:
I want to come back to Iran. But let me ask you a couple of questions about you, because you’re actually from Iran.

CHRISTIANE: That’s right. My father is Iranian. I was raised in Iran. My mother’s English, but I grew up in Iran, absolutely. And I experienced the first revolution in 1978, and that is what made me want to be a journalist. I was old enough to understand, I could see the drama unfolding around me – it was a personal drama. There were great personal repercussions against my family and many of my friends. But it is what made me want to go into this business.

LESLEY: Tell us about that. Tell us about your family, because as I’ve read, your father was an airline executive and the family had to flee, you were forced to flee.

CHRISTIANE: Well, forced to flee is not exactly accurate. Basically, my father worked in the airlines and – how’s the best diplomatic way to put it? My father’s brother was arrested and eventually we believe he was tortured and killed in prison. We’ve never seen the body, and they’ve never explained it to us. But my parents actually were not forced to leave, but they were forced to live under obviously the revolutionary regime and the change in society and culture of the time. My parents actually left for a vacation in the summer of 1980, with my two younger sisters, and could never go back because as they were going back, Iraq invaded Iran and started the war, and the longer they stayed out the more difficult it was for my father to go back. It was … you know, he was advised not to go back. So they were accidental refugees.

LESLEY: In England, right?

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY: But I also read that when you were 11, which was well before that time, you were sent to a convent school in England. Is that right?

CHRISTIANE: Yes, that is right. I did my primary education in Iran and then my mom sent me, and my dad sent me, to boarding school in England. It was quite common amongst more westernized families. I mean, you know, that was a part of my life. I probably, looking back, would have preferred to stay in Iran with my parents, but that’s the way it was.

LESLEY: And I also heard you were quite miserable. Is that true?

CHRISTIANE:
I was miserable for a while. It took me a long time. I cried every day for two weeks. I was away from my parents, away from my family. I was 11, quite young. And I did have my grandparents, which was great, but it was weird being in a very strict boarding school after being with your parents and your sisters and your family. I did go back to Iran where my home was and remained until the revolution for every vacation – Christmas, Easter and summer. But it was hard. But I suppose it’s part of what made me independent and, hey, you know, no regrets.

LESLEY: Right. But of course, our life path is our life path.

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY:
That brings me back to Iran, because I wonder – this is always asked of me as a reporter – what are your biases? What are your opinions? How hard is it for you to cover anything in Iran, given your own family background?

CHRISTIANE:
I understand people asking that question, but I always reject it. I really … I ask people just to look at my body of work. And nobody knows my biases. Do they think I’m against? Do they think I’m for? They don’t know my biases. They don’t know where I come from in this. I just try very hard to report the facts and to tell the stories as best as I can. I am not part of the current crop of opinion journalists or commentary journalists or feelings journalists. I strongly believe that I have to remain in the realm of fact, and from there delve deeper into a society. And I will say one thing very clearly: The lack of information about Iran, in the United States especially but also in the rest of the world, in a way makes my job … it’s sort of like an open well to plumb because anything I say, you know at least increases people’s awareness of what’s going on. And I think the one thing that I have really tried to do over the last now 19 years of covering Iran as a reporter, is try to go beyond the inevitable cliché and the stereotype, which is found strongest in the United States, because the U.S. bases its relationship and its knowledge about Iran on 30 years ago, and has very little impartial reporting to go on. And that’s what I try. But you look right now, if you just look at the television screens right now, all the so-called experts on Iran, 99 percent, are exiles based in the United States, have their own experience, their own history and their own agenda. And so that makes it very difficult for anybody to get a really clear view of what’s going on. That’s what I believe.

LESLEY:
Well, let me ask you then about the state… of where objective journalism is heading.

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY: I come out of the same background that you do. I always – I guess the right word is to say, sat on my own opinions because we do have our opinions, you can’t deny that. But I tried as hard as I could to overcome them and to be as impartial a reporter as possible. But I find as I look out on television, and even in my reading, that there’s less and less a market for that kind of reporting. The future seems to be with people who slant their stories. Even my own child, whom I put in that younger generation, says she hates reporting that doesn’t tell her where the correspondent is coming from. And I think she’s representative.

CHRISTIANE: She may be, and she’s obviously reacting to something that’s growing like wildflower now in our business. But the thing is, I get afraid when I read something and I just don’t know – is that the fact, is that the truth, is that somebody’s political bias, or somebody’s cultural bias? And that frightens me. Of course there’s a major role for opinion commentary and there has been since time immemorial. But I strongly think that unless we are able to present people with the objective facts of what’s going on, how are they meant to know what is going on? For instance, right now in Iran I’m telling you with confidence that nobody knows what’s going on there, really, because when you’re just getting Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, amateur videos – and no explanation, no reporting – you just don’t know what’s going on. It’s speculation, it’s guesswork, it’s patchwork.

Now, people may think that makes an interesting movie, but it’s not fact and it’s not the reality, and it doesn’t show you or help you understand where this is going. And I can see that because – and I don’t know where this is going, because even though I’ve been there, even though I wouldn’t even tell you where it was going if I was standing in Iran right now – but I have heard commentary on American television that suggests that there’s a green revolution taking place, or a cyber revolution, or something. And it’s just words that are flung around by people who’ve never been there and who probably do have their own opinions, but have no idea what’s going on on the ground. And I find that – I actually find it dangerous. It’s dangerous to our society, it’s damaging. It might be interesting but it’s not the reality.

LESLEY:
Well, you know, I’m listening to you and I would think in general that those kinds of reporting – little snippets of things, people spouting off, whatever – is not helpful. But when you’re dealing with a situation where even one of the finest reporters in the world, which is you, would say to me, “Even I don’t know really what’s going on” —

CHRISTIANE: Well, yes, and it’s a fact. I don’t know how many people are gathered in any square at any given time. And there are so many conflicting reports. And I speak the language and I know where to go on the websites. People don’t even know which website is speaking for Mousavi.

LESLEY: Right.

CHRISTIANE: Did he say that, “I’m prepared for martyrdom,” as Facebook said? Or did he make a much more rational speech to the people as we’re now told the official website says? And even now the website is being slowed down and closed down, and it’s difficult to get access to it. You know, people want to believe that they know everything sitting back and just watching, or interpreting for themselves, without any parameter, without any knowledge or information or any experience.

LESLEY: But you would admit that if we didn’t have the Twittering and the people doing little tiny, short reports with their cell phones, we would actually know less than we know.

CHRISTIANE: That’s true. That’s true. But I still am not prepared to say that we know exactly what’s going on. There’ve been accounts of Twitter being hacked, of Facebook being hacked … just look at Jim Sciutto, who’s been all over CNN for days and probably his own air, saying that his own account was hacked and false messages were being sent out. No there isn’t a sure way, and that’s why there is no – in my view there is no substitute for honest-to-goodness, on-the-ground reporting, eyes and ears, by professionals who have a code of conduct. And that’s to verify –

LESLEY: Well what do you do when they start, one, throwing out people –

CHRISTIANE: Well, you have to base a little bit on, obviously, on what you can get. But you have to always put umpteen warnings out that we can’t verify practically 99 percent of it. On the other hand, I’m not dismissing – and nor would I ever – the bravery of those people who are going out there and taking their cell-phone films and the ingenuity of this highly tech society there, which is getting the word out. I’m just saying that as journalists we can’t verify it all.

LESLEY: Let’s go back to you for a minute. You had been the person, for years and years, I think for almost 20 years, who whenever there was any atrocity in the world, whether it be war or genocide or refugees fleeing, desperate poverty, you were the first one on the ground. And then you would stay for a long time and –

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY: – do your reporting and, as I said before, you have accomplished a body of work that’s one of the finest ever, certainly in broadcast journalism. But I’m wondering what the effects have been on you. You have spent the better part of 20 years watching such horrors. Do you have nightmares? Do you –

CHRISTIANE: You know, it’s several effects. One the one hand I know and I’m sure that I have a comfort level in being able to operate in those situations. When I say comfort level, I don’t mean it as comfortable, but I’ve managed to be in those situations and as they get progressively worse and more dangerous, and I get older and more experienced, I’m able to, I think, report and be able to make judgments that are based on experience and am able, I hope, to be able to give real credible reporting and information. And, again, that’s why I think this job is so important, to be able to spend time and get that experience, and then be able to report through a prism of 20 years of experience. So that’s the one thing. In terms of how it hurts and harms, yeah, you know, it does. Yes, I find it very difficult to witness the incredibly heartbreaking things that we do, and it gives me not so much nightmares when I’m asleep, but when I’m awake it gives me, you know, flashbacks and moments of poignancy, which I sometimes stop and think about, and I get emotional. But usually when I’m actually doing it, a different imperative kicks in, and this is, I know I have to keep my wits about me, I have to use my experience, I have to use my calm that somehow I have managed to keep about me, to be able to report, and increasingly, now, to hold the line against a deluge of anchors and so forth, experts and analysts who have their own theories. And they come at you with questions on the air, and I just have to stand very still, very calm, and report what’s actually happening, not what they wish was happening, or that they think was happening.

LESLEY: Have you ever said on the air, to one of these people, “Are you out of your mind?”

CHRISTIANE: Not in so many words, but I’ve implied it.

LESLEY:
You implied it. OK, very diplomatic. Now you have a child. You have Darius. How old is he now?

CHRISTIANE: Darius is nine now.

LESLEY: Nine!

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY:
And you have said that that’s changed you a little.

CHRISTIANE: Oh, a lot. It made me more sensitive, perhaps, to the plight of children out there, and to the depths of the humanitarian woes that are out there. But it’s also made it more difficult. I don’t want to be away from my son and I think every mother understands that. And so it has made it more difficult. But I strongly believe that – I really do, and I don’t think it’s just professional nonsense or self-serving, you know, claptrap – I strongly believe that the strong democracy and a strong society needs a strong, independent, fair and rigorous class of journalists, a professional class. And without it your country wouldn’t be the same, my country wouldn’t be the same, Iran, many of the emerging democracies wouldn’t be the same. I think strong journalism is what carries us through these crises and these problems in the world, because we are out there trying to bring the truth, and holding those who need to be held accountable, accountable. And I think that’s just … you can’t do without.

LESLEY: As a person, obviously, who’s carrying the banner for good, old-fashioned, hard-leather reporting, let me ask you about this New York Times reporter, David Rohde.

CHRISTIANE: Yes.

LESLEY: Rohde was held captive in Pakistan for seven months and not only did The New York Times, his home newspaper, never report it, The New York Times went out and persuaded virtually every single other news organization, including CNN, not to report it. This is astonishing in every way. What are your opinions on that? Should we have reported this, in your view?

CHRISTIANE: I would love to talk to David about this and see what he thought. I don’t know The New York Times’s reasoning on that and I don’t know what they know that we didn’t know, in terms of who they were dealing with.

LESLEY: Let me interrupt for one second. Because Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said last night that David Rohde thanked him and he was grateful. So that’s what David Rohde thinks. But, of course, no one knew that. No one knew what he thought at the time.

CHRISTIANE: Well, I can only assume that The New York Times wasn’t doing anything nefarious and that they were doing what they thought they should do for his safety.

LESLEY: Right.

CHRISTIANE: There are many people who have said, certainly with the Taliban, the more the plight of a kidnappee was publicized, the longer that he would be kept and the more money would be asked for him. That, for sure, I’ve heard for businesspeople who’ve been kidnapped, and others in Afghanistan. I’m just delighted it seems that David escaped. I’m glad he was able to do that. Seven months is a heck of a long time. Remember, though, back in the ’80s when people like Terry Anderson were kept. I think he was kept for six years or so. But there’s a double-edged sword toward how to behave when one of your own is taken in. Some people think that excessive publicity harms them; others think that it shows those people that they’re holding somebody who they need to release; that it is a journalist, that it’s not a spy, that it’s not anybody else – it’s a journalist. It works different ways in different places.

LESLEY: Well, it was a toughie, but I’m with you. I’m just so glad that David Rohde is out and free, alive and healthy and all of that.

CHRISTIANE: If I’m kidnapped I want you, personally, to lead the charge and make sure people know about it.

LESLEY: You do? You would want –

CHRISTIANE: I do, actually. I do.

LESLEY: Well it’s a big debate here now and we’ll see where it leads. There are troubling aspects to it because you and I know that we’ve been trained that our first obligation is to the public, and we should report whatever we know. So when there are exceptions to that it needs to be explored and looked at and discussed, and I hope we do more of that.

CHRISTIANE: I think, in these instances, you also have to think about the security of the person involved, and I think there are many people who advise … and we don’t always get it right, but who knows? Look at poor Daniel Pearl – how much publicity was done. I’m not saying it would have worked a different way, but he was beheaded. You know, I don’t know what would’ve happened. On the other hand, Roxana Saberi’s case was heavily publicized and she was released because the president of the United States basically said that she was not a spy for the U.S., and the Iranian government, the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad – who’s now such a lightning rod – he’s the one who told the judiciary in so many words to basically get her out.

LESLEY: Christiane, before we let you go, I know that you’re starting a new program on CNN and I’ve been waiting anxiously for it. Tell us all about it. Will we be able to see it in the United States?

CHRISTIANE: Well, in short, it’s going to be five days a week, five nights a week, on CNN International, which, if you have the right cable system, you can see in the U.S. But it will be one day a week in CNN in America as well, and that’s great. As far as I’m concerned the more foreign news and the more understanding about our complicated world for Americans, the better. It’ll be hopefully bringing my 20 years’ experience in the field into the studio, but also we’ll travel the program. And it’ll be an attempt to put a big issue of the day, or of the week, or whatever, in context, in perspective, and really dig deeper – which is not happening anywhere on television right now. Except, of course, on “60 Minutes, Lesley.

LESLEY: And when will it start?

CHRISTIANE: It’s starting mid-September. I don’t know the precise date, but it’s mid-September.

LESLEY: Alright. Well everybody who’s reading this interview will be anxiously awaiting, and thank you. I know you’re in London. Come home. You live in New York now.

CHRISTIANE: I’m away for the summer, working and spending some time with my family.

LESLEY: Alright. Well we’ll see you in September.

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