Stephen Kinzer on “Inside Iran’s Fury”

Stephen Kinzer
Deborah Donnelly

Stephen Kinzer was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times for more than 20 years, holding posts in over 50 countries on five continents. The author of several books, he now teaches journalism and political science at Northwestern University and writes on world affairs for The Guardian. I recently caught up with Kinzer to discuss his experience reporting Smithsonian's October feature, "Inside Iran's Fury."

What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis a bit?
I was the New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul during the late 1990s. I was sitting at my desk one day when the telephone rang, and it was my boss from New York telling me that he had chosen me to go to Iran and cover the 1997 election that was to bring Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency. I spent a couple of weeks in Iran traveling all over the country. I found that fascinating, naturally, and it led me to ask myself a question that I ask often when I'm traveling in other countries, which is, how did this country get to be the way it is? Iran is a poor country, and it's a country that's marginalized from the international mainstream. I began asking myself why this happened. That led me to a long study of Iranian history, which led me to produce my book All the Shah's Men and remain interested in what aspects of Iran's past shape its present-day situation. It made me all the more eager as the American confrontation with Iran escalates to try to tell the story of what lies behind it. How do Iranians see this? I always like to put myself in the other person's shoes, and I think that is something that we as Americans don't always do.

So put yourselves in those shoes for a moment. What does it mean to be Iranian today?
I think that being Iranian holds within it a sense of frustration. Iran is a great nation that was one of the greatest empires in the world for many centuries. Iranian scholars, mathematicians, scientists, poets and writers have made huge contributions to world culture. Yet today, Iran is a place where many people can't fulfill themselves. Iran has not, because of the kind of government it has, been able to provide an environment in which so many of these talented Iranians can work at home for the development of their own country. Instead, they're working in the United States for the development of our country. That's good for us, but I think it's frustrating for Iranians both in Iran and outside the country.

What surprised you the most?
One thing that did become clear as I interviewed people was that Iranians have in their collective consciousness a sense that the outside world, particularly the western world, has always tried to prevent Iran from developing. Whether this is true or not, it's something that many Iranians very passionately believe. Therefore, they see the western desire to prevent Iran from freely developing its nuclear program, not as something new, not as something that has to do specifically with nuclear energy, but as simply the latest manifestation of a very long campaign by the west to prevent Iran from emerging as a powerful independent nation.

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