The first journalist from an American Jewish pro-Israel publication to be given an Iranian visa since 1979 reported Wednesday that he had found little evidence to suggest that Iran wanted to destroy Israel, as widely asserted by critics of the Iranian nuclear agreement.
The journalist, Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor for news at The Forward, an influential New York-based newspaper catering to American Jews, also wrote that people in Iran, including its Jews, were eager for outside interaction and willing to speak critically about their government.
While he heard widespread criticism of the Israeli government and its policies toward the Palestinians, Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote, he also found support among some senior clerics for a two-state solution, should the Palestinians pursue that outcome.
“Though I had to work with a government fixer and translator, I decided which people I wanted to interview and what I would ask them,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote in the first of at least two articles from his July reporting trip. “Far from the stereotype of a fascist Islamic state, I found a dynamic push-and-pull between a theocratic government and its often reluctant and resisting people.”
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Mr. Cohler-Esses’s reporting, coming as Congress prepares to vote on the nuclear agreement next month, presents a more nuanced view of Iran compared with the dark descriptions advanced by a number of Jewish-American advocacy groups that consider Iran a rogue enemy state.
Many of those groups have exhorted lawmakers to reject the nuclear agreement, which will end sanctions in return for verified guarantees that Iran’s nuclear work remains peaceful.
“Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote. “Their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle.”
Among some of Iran’s senior ayatollahs and prominent officials, he wrote, there is also dissent from the official line against Israel.
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“No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state,” he wrote. “But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies.”
While he wrote that there was no freedom of the press in Iran, “freedom of the tongue has been set loose.”
“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even to be videotaped doing so,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote.
He added that members of Iran’s Jewish population of 9,000 to 20,000 people, “depending on whom you talk to,” were also unafraid to complain about discriminatory laws that restrict their ability to work in the government.
He described them as “basically well-protected second-class citizens — a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.”
Iran’s government, he wrote, “makes a rigid distinction between hostility to ‘the Zionist entity’ and respect for followers of Judaism.”
Mr. Cohler-Esses, who taught English in Iran for a few years before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, spent nearly two years trying to secure a journalist visa, after the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. Mr. Rouhani vowed to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute with foreign powers, end international sanctions and reintegrate the country into the world.
Initially hoping to interview Mr. Rouhani when he visited the United Nations in September 2013, Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote that Iran’s United Nations mission advised him to seek a visa to visit Iran instead. He tried at least twice.
Jane Eisner, The Forward’s editor in chief, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the visa was finally granted after Morris Motamed, a Jewish former member of Iran’s Parliament, wrote a letter supporting the application.
“What we’ve been told by the Iranians is that his letter of support really made the difference,” Ms. Eisner said.
Mr. Cohler-Esses was given a seven-day visa late last month, which he had to use within 30 days, she said. His request to extend the visa was denied.
It is unclear whether the government’s decision to grant the visa was related to hopes of positive American portrayals of the nuclear agreement, which was completed in Vienna on July 14.
Ms. Eisner said the Iranian authorities appeared to have made no effort to restrict Mr. Cohler-Esses’s access to a list of interview prospects he presented, including some senior clerics close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
“I think it was because he had done so much homework,” she said of Mr. Cohler-Esses. “He was racing all over the country.”
Mr. Cohler-Esses was on vacation and unavailable to speak about his reporting. Ms. Eisner said he was planning a second article focusing on Iran’s Jewish community.
The Forward, started in New York as a Yiddish-language publication in 1897 catering to Jewish immigrants from Europe, is described on its website as “the most widely read Jewish newspaper anywhere.” The Forward’s English-language version started as a weekly in 1990.
It has yet to take a definitive editorial stand on the Iranian nuclear agreement, but Ms. Eisner said the newspaper planned to do so before the congressional vote.
In an editor’s note accompanying Mr. Cohler-Esses’s article, Ms. Eisner said she hoped that his reporting would contribute to an informed discussion about the nuclear accord.
“Those looking for assurances that access to trade and credit will help Iran evolve into a more enlightened nation, bettering the lives of its people and ceasing the export of terror and destruction abroad, will find ample evidence in this story,” she wrote. “But those who worry that Iran’s hatred of Israel and the United States continues unabated, that it is not to be trusted with nuclear potential, will find plenty to support those views, too.”
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(via NY Times)