With over 800 Iran-related bylines to his name, Saeed Kamali Dehghan is the first staff journalist at The Guardian dedicated to covering Iran, and one of the few Iranian nationals employed by a major English-language media institution.
Much of his reporting relates to Iran’s human rights violations, but as he said in a phone interview, “the common problem in many western media organisations is that they see Iran as black and white, and Iran is not like that. It’s a spectrum, it’s a rainbow.”
So while Saeed covers issues such as Iran’s use of a fabricated Wikileaks cable to smear the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, another of his recent stories was a big feature about Iran’s tech start-ups and fashion gaining a foothold in Iran. “We need more human stories about Iran,” he says.
With the current moderate administration now celebrated and lauded by many for changes such as the re-establishment of relations with western countries and bringing Iran closer to the prospect of an end to sanctions, it’s an interesting time for a journalist covering Iran.
Saeed believes the Rouhani government has done some good things in its two years in power, but has also failed to deliver on some of its promises. “He delivered on one aspect in terms of nuclear deal, and inflation under sanctions,” he says. “He hasn’t done enough on human rights and releasing those still under arrest. . . . If the Rouhani government is doing a good job somewhere, we should say it; but if he’s doing a bad job somewhere else, we should also say that.”
He cites the example of a statement by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) a few weeks ago condemning the Rouhani government’s gagging the hardline media. “[The ICHRI] was right to highlight that the government is trying to suppress the opponents of the nuclear deal,” Saeed says. “Free speech is for all, even for those we don’t like.”
As an Iranian journalist covering Iran, Saeed acknowledges that can take some effort to suppress one’s feelings and beliefs. “As an Iranian I have an emotional attachment to the country, but when I’m writing news I step back and try to be impartial. But I’m allowed to express my opinion when I write op-eds, and I’ve also done that sort of thing. I wrote about why Canada is getting it wrong on Iran, which led to the then Canadian foreign minister accusing me on Twitter of working for the Iranian authorities. I’ve been attacked by some people who accuse me of working for the Iranians and by others who accuse me of working for the Brits. I hope that’s a sign I’m doing my job right!”
One matter on which Saeed did not hesitate to take a stance on was his support for the recent nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran on July 14, 2015.
“I give credit to Obama for the peace we now have in the US-Iran relationship because of this nuclear deal. I give credit to Rouhani and Zarif too. But with a different president it might not have happened. Obama said in his speech that just because some Iranians chant “death to America” it doesn’t mean all Iranians think so—and he is damn right. He has never been to Iran, but he understands the complexity of Iranian politics in a way that many in the American press don’t.”
Saeed’s career as a professional journalist began in 2006, with what he considers a defining moment for a young engineering undergraduate who had never left his home country of Iran.
“One day in 2006 I picked up the phone and called the UK for the first time in my life. I called the Guardian switchboard. The Iranian daily Shargh was closed down by the government, and I wanted to know if I could write about it. I was connected to their foreign desk, where I explained that I was an Iranian journalist. They told me to email them my article.
“The next day I looked at the website to see if the article had been published, and it wasn’t. My English at the time needed a great deal of editing, and I thought they didn’t like it and forgot about it. A few weeks later, on an off-chance I discovered that it had in fact been published in print and online only a few days after my submission. You can still find that first article under my profile on the Guardian website.”
While he didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a political writer, politics, he says, “quickly became the only thing I wanted to do. It was everything that was happening around me.”
Between 2006 and 2009, Saeed wrote regularly for The Guardian, though as a contributor, not a staff member. But in June 2009, when Iran erupted in protest at the widely contested president elections, Saeed’s career took off.
“As soon as the post-election unrest occurred, my byline started appearing on the front pages. In one month alone I gave about 50 live interviews to international media about what was happening. It was an unfortunate moment and I was sad to see all the arrests and crackdowns. But as a young journalist writing about an extraordinary moment in my country it was momentous for my career.”
Saeed was subsequently co-producer on For Neda, a popular HBO documentary released in 2010 about the now famous murdered protester Neda Agha Soltan. He left Iran around the period many journalists were facing persecution for their coverage of the protests, and moved to London, where he completed a Masters in journalism and joined The Guardian as a staff journalist.
Asked why he chose to write for an English-language newspaper instead of a Persian one, Saeed cites The Guardian’s long history and ownership and accountability structure.
“It’s a newspaper with 194 years of history and doesn’t belong to anyone,” he says. “It belongs to itself as a trust, it has a very unique structure and I’m very proud of that. I’m happy to work for a newspaper that has such a long history of being truly independent. Kings and prime ministers have come and gone in this country and the world and The Guardian has been there through it all.”
Saeed believes that more Iranian journalists should be writing for the English-language press, and taking that experience back home. “Yes, we have newspapers like Etelaat which has been around for 80 years, and Kayhan, with a similarly long history. But influenced by the country's political events, they have gone through significant changes and lost their consistency. There’s never been a consistency in their work like we see in the west at The Guardian or the New York Times or the New Yorker. And from the way some Iranian officials and media talk about the Guardian ias if it's a government newspaper, it’s clear that some of them don’t know that there are newspapers in the world that have been able to maintain their independence for a long period of time.”
Saeed nevertheless sees some positive developments in the Iranian media in recent times, such as Iranian officials writing for the foreign press. “Rouhani wrote for the Washington Post, Zarif recently wrote for The Guardian. Iranian officials are beginning to interact more with the foreign press and that sort of thing will be good for Iran.”
Iran, he says, is also allowing more foreign press into the country, permitting foreign writers to experience Iran first-hand, which should result in more accurate and nuanced portrayals of the country.
“I looked at the editorials written by the foreign press in the wake of the nuclear deal, and my observation was that those newspapers who have a physical presence in Iran were largely supportive of the agreement,” Saeed says. “Those who haven’t, were not. By not allowing journalists in easily Iran is doing itself a disservice.”