Laura Secor had been traveling to Iran for almost a decade when, in 2012, she was harshly questioned and accused of being a spy while reporting for the New Yorker. After leaving the country, she was denied another visa. Her time there forms the basis of her new book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran.
The book is notable for its focus on the country’s reformers, many of them supporters of the 1979 upheaval that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power; they are now disappointed in the revolution and wish to live in a less authoritarian regime. Secor was there for the end of Mohammad Khatami’s second term as president, which ended in 2005; he was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two terms overlapped (not entirely coincidentally) with a period of international isolation and the crushing of the country’s Green Movement.
I met Secor near her home in Brooklyn. We discussed the difficulties of reporting in Iran, the place of women in the country, and whether the regime is bound to collapse. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
You first went to Iran in 2004. When the Ahmadinejad period started in 2005, how quickly did you feel like a change occurred in the country?
It was pretty quick. Certainly by 2007 it was clear that things had changed. He was elected in the summer of 2005. I was there for that election. I came back in the fall of 2006 for a different election. By then you could sense that there was definitely a shift in the tide, but I really remember it being within the year that followed that things got more uncomfortable, particularly for dual nationals—people I knew who had American and Iranian passports. They were no longer able to function over there quite as freely as they had been, and some were intimidated into leaving. Then there was a series of clashes between women’s rights demonstrators and police and that kind of thing.
Given that Ayatollah Khamenei, rather than the president, is the most powerful person in Iran, why do you think things changed so much under Ahmadinejad?
I think it’s not something that’s entirely clear even to people inside Iran. Khatami was reformist, and he had an agenda of opening up this space for civil society and for more freedoms of the press and expression and association, and he came up against really a pretty hard wall. In retrospect, that time looks freer because at least the conflict was in the open. You could see what was happening. There were student demonstrations that were put down. There were newspapers that opened that were then shut down. In a sense, the distance between the president and the security establishment created a kind of a space that was a little bit freer. In the end, the security establishment did prevail, and that was one of the reasons that the reform movement was stymied by 2004.
Ahmadinejad came in with a much more explicitly authoritarian agenda, and his Cabinet made that very clear. He had a lot of people in his Cabinet who were pretty deeply embedded in the security establishment. The president has his areas of authority in the domestic/political space and in the economy, which is where Ahmadinejad really made a big impression. I think a lot of people would say that to the extent there was any opening under Khatami, it wouldn’t have happened if the supreme leader was 100 percent set against it, and to the extent that there was a total shutdown afterward, it wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t in favor of it. He doesn’t call every shot, but there’s this kind of complicated system of pressure points and infractions, and the boundaries of that are set from above.
Did Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 surprise you?
It was surprising to a lot of people. It was surprising to me. There were a few factors, and it’s kind of hard to say what was definitive. Ahmadinejad’s second term was really a very dark time for the Islamic Republic. You had very, very heavy security atmosphere in the country because of the uprising in 2009. That was really met with crushing repression.
Is that when you noticed it most as a journalist too?
Yeah, I was there in 2012, and it was a different country—it wasn’t a different country, it was the same country, but it was a really radically different atmosphere. It has always been before, but with some degree of plausible deniability. This was very overt. So that was unsustainable to a degree. That was not a way Iranians were used to living.
My sense was that Rouhani’s election was a foreign policy election for the first time in my knowledge of the country. The very first presidential debate turned on issues of foreign policy. All of the candidates practically were leaping on the one candidate who really supported Ahmadinejad’s vision of foreign policy. There was a sense that the tide had really turned against that way of conducting Iran’s affairs in the world, and there was an opening in the establishment toward a more modern course.
How difficult was your reporting, just in terms of getting people to talk to you?
It was really a mix. I found, in general, people were very welcoming and curious about a visiting American. There were not a lot of us there and not a lot of access to foreigners for a lot of ordinary people—especially outside of the capital. Iran is not a country you can walk into on your visa and just go out and report and do whatever you want, particularly if you have an American passport. The translators are freelancers, but they do have to answer to a foreign press agency that is closely tracking our movements. So I was always conscious of that. So you go in and tell them what you want to do and try to see who you want to see, but there were always people who I could not see through those channels. There would be people who would be uncomfortable speaking in front of the translator. That was something I had to navigate. One thing you can always do in Iran is stand up. You can go talk to people in the street or in the bazaar and say, “What do you think about this election?”
And they are cool with that?
They’re cool with that.
What’s hard to do is to go in with a very clear agenda and say, You know, I want to talk to the following 10 experts in such and such a field. That becomes much more challenging, and there are lots of reasons for that. That was when I got frustrated.
When you read about Eastern Europe in the 1980s, you get a sense that these regimes had lost a ton of popular support and that even the people in them, in the bureaucracy, didn’t believe in the cause. Do you feel that the people you met in the Iranian bureaucracy really believed in the ideals of the regime, or that they were sort of going through the motions with the scenery collapsing behind them?
I would say the latter. There really are true believers in Iran, and enough of them to create a real serious division in society. I did interview those kinds of people too when I was there. But my sense is the bureaucracy is not that different from what you found in Eastern Europe.
What do you think about the argument that there will never be complete rapprochement between the United States and Iran because anti-Americanism is such a huge part of the regime’s animating logic?
The regime’s animating logic but not the public’s.
I think there’s some truth to that. That ideology is important to part of the establishment. But I think the regime gained something from a constant perception of threat from the United States, and they gave up some of that with the nuclear deal. But they want to keep alive this sort of general animating belief in being this anti-imperialist, anti-Israel, anti-American force in the Middle East.
How much of the state ideology has to do with being part of a Shiite minority in the larger Muslim world?
I never felt that very strongly. It seems to be more about the revolutionary ideology. They position themselves more against the West than they do against the Arab world in particular. It has a slightly more globally insurgent feeling to it.
The debate about Muslim women in the West is often very fraught. How did spending time with Muslim women in a Muslim country change preconceptions you might have had?
I think Iran is probably quite different from a lot of the neighboring countries in that region in terms of the culture around gender relations. Although there’s an intensely discriminatory legal apparatus, and certainly I’m not going to make any brief for it being a paragon of equality, the women I encountered in Iran were powerful individuals who had, a lot of them, developed ways of navigating that system that were ingenious and courageous and very bold. They’re also very visible in Iran in a way I think may not be true in some of the neighboring countries. There are women in public life and in every profession, and in every place that you go there are women working. It’s not a place where women are hidden away, in private homes, out of view.
They are forced to veil, and that’s been the case since the start of the Islamic Republic. That’s had some serious implications. One of them is that the segregation of the universities led a lot of conservative families who might not have otherwise done so to start sending their daughters to universities after the revolution. And there’s been an explosion of university education in Iran because the Islamic Republic has set up universities. So now more than 60 percent of university-educated people in Iran are women.
Sounds like America.
Yeah. The women in Iran are also really underemployed. There are not as many jobs for university-educated women as there are for illiterate men; it’s an interesting dynamic. I think if you spent time there, you kind of can’t help but feel that there’s pressure that’s been created. One thing that the Islamic Republic also did, in creating this university system around the provinces, and also really modernizing life in the rural village, was create a lot of social mobility. Since the time of the revolution, you’ve had a lot of people moving into the middle class who didn’t start out there. Between that and the education of women, there are pressures that have been created, that the regime itself has created, that exert pressure onto the regime.
That’s also reminiscent of Eastern Europe, right? You have people who are educated or skilled, and they have no outlet. It does seem like, at some point, the pressure will be felt on the regime from that deficit.
Yeah, what are you going to do with those people? Where are you going to fit them in? In Iran it’s particularly acute; there are several reasons for middle-class exclusion in Iran. One of them is economic, because the oil economy doesn’t really need a productive middle class. And the other is political, because people are favored for jobs who are loyal and were veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. So you had a certain amount of political pressure that has also excluded the urban middle class. It is a place where the expectations of the population don’t really match the space available to them.