Nazila Fathi grew up in Tehran before and during the Iranian Revolution, and began working as a fixer for foreign journalists, including New York Times reporter Judith Miller, in the early 1990s. She went on to become the Times’ longest-serving Tehran correspondent, covering the rise and fall of the reform movement under President Mohammad Khatami, and security forces’ smashing of the reformist Green Movement in 2009. Throughout her career, government agencies subjected her to surveillance, which escalated to threats and harassment. Fearing arrest in July 2009, she and her family fled to Canada, and now live in the United States. Fathi spoke to IranWire about her new memoir of revolution and journalism, The Lonely War.
Your book’s title refers in the most literal sense to Iran’s near-total isolation during the Iran-Iraq War, but also hints at domestic troubles. In what other ways has Iran’s struggle been a lonely one?
Considering the region that Iranians live in, it is a lonely place. When the Egyptian uprising and the Tunisian uprising happened, and the Libyan uprising was happening, Iranians had a sense of solidarity with Arab countries. But Iran is a Shiite, Persian country, and even though it’s Muslim, it doesn’t really share many cultural commonalities with neighboring countries. Iranians feel that they are part of a global culture, but politically, Iranians are quite lonely.
There have been a lot of small, lonely wars inside the country: the battle of individuals to have more personal space for themselves, the battle of Iranian women against the restrictions they face, the battle of youth to carve space for themselves, the battle of student activists for more political and social freedoms.
When you were growing up, your parents imagined that the Islamic Republic would collapse. Now, most Iranians who dislike Iran’s political system seem to put their hope in gradual reform. How and when did that shift happen?
The shift happened gradually. Violence was continuous after the revolution for about 10 years, under Khomeini. We had the war, and the executions — right before his death Khomeini executed about 3000 people. I don’t want to suggest that the current leader, Ali Khamenei, is not brutal, but he’s a lot less brutal than Khomeini. When you have lived under the leadership of someone who has carried out executions in the thousands, and the situation moves to what happened in the 1990s, where at least the numbers dropped, and there was a little political freedom, people got used to the civility. They are constantly aware of the violence and insecurity that they lived with. I think that’s the reason they favor reform.
You describe your awareness, from your very earliest days in journalism during the Rafsanjani era, of Iranian officials’ prejudice that journalists were spies and traitors. Did you enter journalism with a sense of fatalism that your career might end in imprisonment or exile?
I wouldn’t call it fatalism, but as soon as I became a journalist, I became very aware of what was happening to other journalists. There were people who worked for Associated Press, for Reuters, and the government told them that they couldn’t work any more, and they had to leave the country. I always told my newspaper that I was afraid that I might need to leave the country. But other colleagues who left the country were still able to visit; they just weren’t able to work in the country. So I saw the consequences, or the dangers, in a different way then.
In 1999, Mohammad Khatami failed to lead protesters who wanted to challenge the supreme leader. In 2009 Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi tried to lead protesters who were challenging the supreme leader, and they have ended up under house arrest. What is the most sensible way for reformists to address the role of the supreme leader?
The reformists lost the opportunity. I talk about two different things in the book: the desire for reform in society, and the reformist politicians who supported Khatami. Khatami had the best chance to move forward with the reform agenda, but he failed, because he was not a politician, he was a philosopher. I remember talking to reformers who told me that they were afraid that if Khatami had come out and supported student protesters in 1999, there would have been a bloodbath. Would that have happened? I don’t know, but it was proven in 2009 that the regime was very much capable of doing it, so it might have done it.
After 2009, many reformists were arrested, and a lot of them have served their sentences. They are much older people; they have been divided because of the arrests. The two leaders, Karroubi and Mousavi, might die under house arrest, since they are both old, and they are both ill. Under the current situation, the reform movement is not in any shape to make decisions, unless some kind of new leadership emerges.
You write at length about the polarization of Iranian society through class divisions, and through a divide between secular and religious Iranians. To what extent have Iranian reformists been able to bridge those divisions?
I think that has been mostly the role of the religious reformers, and the result of urbanization and the growth of the middle class. Iranian society was much more polarized before the revolution and at the beginning of the revolution than it is now. The Iranian middle class has grown. People have moved up in society. They have had better education, they have been able to travel overseas, they have learned that religion can be private, and that it doesn’t have to rule your entire life. That polarization has changed, and the gap between secular and religious people has decreased dramatically. The Green Movement was a manifestation of how huge the middle class in Iran has become.
Emerging technology, from satellite dishes to text messaging, appeared throughout your life in Iran as a force for a more open society. Will that continue, or have the authorities grown savvier about using new technologies for their own ends?
The government has been quite restrictive, but it has never stopped people from having access to them. People have come up with creative ways to use them as well. Just look at what happened a few weeks ago in Tehran after the death of the pop musician Morteza Pashaie. Tens of thousands of people came out onto the streets in an outpouring of emotion. The fact that so many people came out was political by itself because coming out on the streets in such numbers is banned, singing in public is banned, singing is banned for women. And people were doing all those things.
As the regime has tried to stop people from organizing and communicating on social media, people have continued to use social media in different ways. For example, people use Viber in a different way from how we use it. We use it to make free calls, they use it to send messages to huge numbers of people.
On the other hand, it looks like Khamenei knows what kind of power social media has. He tweets a lot, and it’s very easy to follow his mindset by following his tweets.
In your epilogue you conclude that oil revenue has been the biggest deterrent to democracy in Iran. How do you think the recent drop in the price of oil will affect Iran’s politics?
The drop in oil prices is good news for Iran. When you look at the late 1990s, the early Khatami era, when reform flourished, oil was under 10 dollars a barrel. In 2009, Iran had the highest oil revenue ever in its history. That’s how they could afford to pay all those people to come out into the streets and disrupt the protesters. Every time the government has huge oil revenue, it becomes more dictatorial because it can be generous with its support base, and use that support base to crack down on the opposition.
You present a very painful picture of your family’s exile from Iran, and you describe vividly your wish to go back. What gives you hope that that might become possible?
Iran’s political situation has been very fluid. People who left the country in the beginning of the revolution have gone back. The current leaders are all very old, and they are not going to live forever. Change is inevitable in Iran. The children of the current rulers don’t believe in the system that their parents have created. I’m younger than they are, and I’m absolutely sure I will go back.