BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robin Wright, author of the book "In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade," how much influence do you think the Iran relationship with this country has had on this country in the last 10 years?
ROBIN WRIGHT, AUTHOR, "IN THE NAME OF GOD: THE KHOMEINI DECADE": Oh, I think it's had not only an immediate impact of the trauma of the hostage ordeal -- the impact of the confrontation between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf, the shooting down of the Iranian aircraft I think it's had a much broader impact, and that is it, along with Vietnam, proved that the United States was not invincible; was, indeed, very vulnerable, and that Third World powers could not only stand up to us and defy us, but occasionally could even defeat us. And so I think it's had an impact on our national psyche and on our policymaking apparatus.
LAMB:Did they laugh at us behind the scenes over there?
WRIGHT: No. I think they've always been a little bit frightened of us. They've always given us credit for having more power and more planning, more conspiracies than we deserve. I think that they were proud and pleased that they were able to stand up to us, but I don't think they were laughing at us.
LAMB:Why did you write this book?
WRIGHT: I wrote it because of my own experience in the Middle East. I lived in Beirut for years as a correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, and during that period I witnessed the Marine bombing in 1983, when 241 American military personnel were killed, the two embassy bombings. Two of my very best friends are hostages, including Terry Anderson, who had the office next door. And it was my own sense of rage and misunderstanding of the situation. I wanted to find out why this was happening to the United States, why there was this tremendous antagonism between two countries that had been such good friends, and so I kept going back to Iran. I'd first been there during the Shah's era in 1973, and I kept going back and back and back, and finally I came to grips with why it was happening, what it meant and answered some of my own questions. I don't have any sympathy for the revolution, but I certainly understand now.
LAMB:When's the last date in this book that you were able to write about?
WRIGHT: Khomeini's death. He died the weekend I was writing the last chapter. I may be the only American grateful to Khomeini for anything, because it was going to be subtitled "The Khomeini Era." And so I got in the complete time of his rule in Iran.
LAMB:Why the name "In the Name of God"?
WRIGHT: Because that's the basis, the justification, for everything Iran has done over this decade, carried out in the name of God, be it acts of violence against the United States, the war with Iraq, the taking of hostages. Both domestic and foreign policy were shaped around God's laws and carried out in God's name.
LAMB:Did you ever meet Khomeini?
WRIGHT: No, I didn't. I met several members of his family and talked to them at great length, and they offered some unusual insight, but in the last years of his life, Khomeini was never interviewed. It was the first period that when he got back, when Noriana Falachi and various other people who were there at the time got to see him.
LAMB:Who in his family did you meet?
WRIGHT: I met his son, Ahmed, who is a very powerful man in his own right now. I met his daughter, who has some very interesting kind of family type stories about what it was like growing up in the Khomeini household how she would fight with her brother and how Khomeini would settle arguments like a normal father, which is not the way we picture him in the West, that's for sure. Another daughter, some grandchildren ...
LAMB:What were they like?
WRIGHT: Well, they're human beings, just like the rest of us. I don't agree with a lot of the things they said, but it was fascinating, as I said, to get some exposure to someone. It's like being within the inner circle of the Pope or Mu’ammar Qadhafi. I mean, good or bad, the closer you get, the more you understand them. And that's, I think, one of the great things about being a journalist. We can go, often, places like Iran or Libya where American foreign policymakers can't, American diplomats can't, and so we have access and we can begin to understand and, hopefully transmit that at least to some of our readers.
LAMB:Did you ever live in Teheran?
WRIGHT: No. I went there quite often, stayed there for long periods of time, but never lived there.
LAMB:What if somebody told you you had to live in Iran for the rest of your life? What would your reaction be?
WRIGHT: There are places I'd rather live many places.
LAMB:What's good about it?
WRIGHT: Well, Iran is a what is good about Iran? I guess what concerns me most is the stereotypes that are wrong, and, for example, that Khomeini tried to take the revolution back to the seventh century, at the time the faith was founded by the prophet Mohammed. In fact, there are many attempts to modernize. They've kept on many of the modernization products started by the Shah building a subway system in Teheran, building new new development projects. I think that their focus, their hatred was channeled against the West. It was the Westernization that was synonymous with modernization that so turned them off.
And there are still many sides of life where Iranians are approachable. They're open -- life for women is better in Iran than it is in many of the Gulf sheikdoms with which we have good relations. There are women in Parliament; there are women in the ministries; 51 percent of Teheran University a year ago was accounted for by women students. So it's not what is good or bad about Iran; it's a different culture, and it's... I think, unfortunately, one of the problems in the West is that we tend to look at things if they're like us, they're good, and if they're not like us, they're bad.
And I found things that were comfortable for me, as a Westerner, and things that were unusual.
LAMB:What was comfortable?
WRIGHT: What was comfortable? Well, I think the accessibility. After all, it's an interdependent world now, and even a country that's going through a xenophobic revolution, turning away the outside world, still is open to people who will listen. And a lot of Iranians were willing to talk I was always surprised be they hard liners or the so called pragmatists. And with each trip I got to see more and more high level people, including the head of the revolutionary guards, who admitted that they had trained the man who drove into the Marine compound, where I had lost friends. It was almost a surreal experience.
I talked to the interior minister, the Stalin of the revolution, as he's called, a man named Motishimi, who talked about his links in the establishment of the Hezbollah, or Party of God, cells in Lebanon while he was ambassador to Damascus. I mean, it's not as closed off as one might appear. They still know a great deal about us. They get The Washington Post and The New York Times in their libraries and their think tanks. Their newspapers, in both English and Farsi, run a lot of news about the United States, not all negative, either I mean, the straight wire service stories from the Associated Press.
The tragedy is that we don't know as much about them. There are still 10,000 Iranian students who come to the United States for education, but we ...
WRIGHT: Every well, it's gone down, in fact. It was much higher in the early '80s. They had foreign exchange problems and so forth, that limited the number of foreign students they could afford to send overseas.
LAMB:Why do we allow that?
WRIGHT: Oh, I think that we hope that exposure to our culture will help defuse some of the tension of the past decade.
LAMB:Can Americans go over there and study if they want to?
WRIGHT: No, and one of the tragedies is that even just a year ago there was not a single foreign service officer learning Farsi. I mean, we have so isolated cut ourselves off from Iran that there's no one who really has now the exposure, the experience in trying to understand it, so that if we do get to the point that we try to better relations with Iran because the revolution's not going to go away we don't really have the skills, the background knowledge, with which to do it.
LAMB:We have no ambassador there.
WRIGHT: Oh, no. We have interest section run through the Swiss. In Washington, DC, they have an interest section, too, with 90 Iranians in it. We would have the right, if we wanted to, to have Americans working in a foreign embassy the Swiss, the Belgians, some ally if we so chose, but the fact is no one, after the hostage crisis of November 1979, is going to risk the possible dangers of another hostage crisis.
LAMB:When was the last time you were there?
WRIGHT: Just about a year ago.
LAMB:Why did you go?
WRIGHT: I went twice last year, once because of the shooting down of the Iranian aircraft and once because of the end of the war.
LAMB:The Iraq war.
WRIGHT: The Iran Iraq war, which lasted for eight grisly years.
LAMB:You write that when you do travel, you wear the veil.
WRIGHT: All women born or Iranian have to wear either the chador, the all enveloping black veil that covers everything but the face, the hands and the feet, or hajab head scarf and very loose clothing does not reveal any curves.
LAMB:And do you have to go into the country that way, so you dress that way before you leave wherever your demarcation point is?
WRIGHT: It depends on which airline you fly. If you fly in Iran Air, yes. If you fly in a foreign aircraft carrier, you can dress at the last moment. And there are other little things. I mean, you know, you have to be very careful no makeup. I once had my red nail polish on, had forgotten to take it off and the stewardess reminded me, and of course, I had no nail polish remover in except in my luggage, and so they gave me 10 Band Aids to put on the ends of my fingers. And I went through Customs, and pulling out my money to declare the immigration, and, of course, everything went flying and the immigration official leaned over and said, “Are you badly injured?” And I laughed and pulled off one of my Band Aids and showed him, and he laughed. I mean, there is an undercurrent of understanding.
These days you can wear pink nail polish. My last trip, I managed to wear pink, and I was not reprimanded. Things are loosening up now. I think the passing of the Khomeini era, the threshold marked by his death, means more flexibility not a dramatic change, but far greater flexibility in economic matters and commerce with the West, as well as diplomacy. I think we're going to see a rocky but eventually steady course toward bettering relations with the outside world. Last will be the United States and it will be probably a long way down the road, but I think we're headed in that direction, finally.
LAMB:When you travel to Iran, where how do you get there?
WRIGHT: There are not many carrier airlines that still fly to Teheran, so usually I go through Frankfurt. It's the one ... West Germany has very strong trading relations, as does Japan, with Iran, and so I usually go through. But it's amazing the airlines are always booked and there are no super savers, and it can be one of the most expensive places to visit in the world. And Teheran, in fact, is one of the three most expensive cities in the world.
LAMB:For people who live there or for foreigners who travel there?
WRIGHT: Both. And one of the things about the economy that's so troubling the regime and troubling for the average Iranian is that the legal rate of exchange for the dollar is 20 times its legal value, so that a little box of cookies that would cost $8 if you were paying in dollars would cost $160 if you're paying in rials, and the average Iranian can't afford that. It's still a Third World country, and despite its oil the per capita income, is fairly low. And a taxi to rent a taxi for a day just an ordinary old car with an Iranian driver will cost you $250 to t $300 a day. Two tires can cost a university professor two months' salary. It's a tremendously expensive place to live.
LAMB:When you go there, where do you stay?
WRIGHT: I stay at the old Intercontinental or the old Hilton, which have been renamed. One is called the Independence, which symbolized what the Iranian revolution was all about, and the other one is called the Tulip, which is the symbol of martyrdom.
LAMB:What language do you speak?
WRIGHT: French, English. I know 50 words of 50 languages, including 50 words of Farsi, but I've never had a language problem.
LAMB:One of the things that you keep reading through your book is that no matter how hard we try, we can't understand these people. They tell us that; you tell us that. And you tell a story in, I think, the prologue about having a drink or a cup of tea or something with someone in a small cafe.
LAMB:Would you tell us that story as an example of the difficulty in understanding them?
WRIGHT: Well, this was a civil servant who had been a longtime contact, and we were having melon juice and coffee cake one afternoon, and he was telling me how disillusioned he was about the regime, that if his son became of age and the war was still raging, he would get him out of the country; that he hadn't voted in the last presidential or parliamentary elections, didn't even know who was running; that he was very discontent at every level and wished that they were back in the shah's day, not because of the Shah but because of the way of life during that period. And then a friend called him away and told him that Radio Israel and the BBC were reporting that Khomeini was dead. It was erroneous. It was one of the many false reports before Khomeini did die, and he came back ashen faced and told me the news, and then he said, “This is terrible for my country.”
LAMB:What did he mean?
WRIGHT: I think he meant that for all the bad things that were happening in Iran, there were many Iranians, he and others who, though discontent, believed that Khomeini had Iran's best interest in mind, that he may misstep, but he was one who was powerful enough to stand up to the outside world, and his death would mark a time that the nation would be left feeling more vulnerable.
LAMB:And when you visit Iran and you don't speak fluent Farsi, how do you make contact and talk to people do they speak English?
WRIGHT: Oh, there's a lot of English, a lot of French. This is a very cosmopolitan country, and up until the revolution, I mean, everyone was in and out of Iran, and the funny thing is even the old Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises on the downtown corners of Teheran have changed their signs. They now say, “Try our very own fried chicken,” and they have the picture of someone who looks very Muslim, rather than Colonel Sanders. But you go inside and the owner will tell you, sure enough, they still use the same old recipe, and it smells just like Kentucky Fried Chicken. They have been exposed. Iranians, particularly those who've lived in the cities -- and a vast majority of them do now have such a sophisticated knowledge of the outside world and have always had to because of trade and commerce. Iran has been the strategic juncture between East and West, the crossroads. And so there, speaking three or four languages is not unusual at all.
LAMB:Do you get a sense, when you visit with the people, that they all follow this leadership right now? They all believe in what's happening in their country?
WRIGHT: No, I don't. I think there are are believers on two levels. One are those who are in the minority now, I suspect, who believe that the revolution is still very much alive, still very strong, and they believe everything Rafsanjani says or everything, particularly, that Khomeini said. I think there's another level. Iranians have always been strong nationalists and they need strong leadership, and when they get that kind of leadership, they are attracted to it.
They may moan and groan and grumble all the time, but at the end of the day, they worry about the alternatives or someone weak or succumbing to the West. Even those who admire America, were educated here, had some pride at the time of the revolution, that a Third World country could stand up to a superpower and get away with it. And one of their goals during this first decade, despite the immense costs of the war and so forth, included paying off the foreign debt accumulated by the Shah that amounted to billions of dollars, despite the fact they didn't really have the foreign reserves to do it.
They needed to buy military equipment. They needed it for development and so forth. But they felt that was a means of freeing themselves from outside influence, from being beholden to others, and they proudly point out that they were doing this at the same time the United States was becoming the world's greatest debtor nation.
LAMB:You've got here a map that I want the audience to see. How much of this country have you seen?
WRIGHT: A great deal of it. Over the years I did a lot of the kind of kind of standard things one does during the Shah's era, seeing Isfahan and Shiraz, and seeing some of the more beautiful places in the country. Since the revolution, I've, unfortunately, been seeing areas like the war front, a lot of time in Teheran, mostly in the west, probably.
LAMB:At any time that Iran is an issue, you can't turn on your television set without seeing your face and hearing you talk about it. Why is that?
WRIGHT: I think it's, in part, because there are so few Americans who've been interested in Iran, have made the effort to try to understand it, willing to spend much time. The Iranians are also not very good about allowing the press in, and they usually have what we call windows of opportunity where, for four days, there's a big event Khomeini's death, an election, the shooting down of a plane and they allow the entire foreign press in, and then they expel the entire foreign press. I did something unusual. I started applying for visas, and sometimes it would take eight months, 10 months, but I said I wanted to go to Iran.
These were the kind of people I wanted to talk to. And I think maybe being a woman also helped a bit because I was less intimidating or frightening. The fact is that they knew I had lived in Beirut, written about the Shia, the religious sect that dominates in Iran and it is also the largest sect in Lebanon and made them think maybe I was serious about this.
LAMB:Where did you get your interest in the first place?
WRIGHT: Oh, everything in my life has been an accident. I started as a foreign correspondent, years and years ago, 20 years ago, and was first in Africa and loved it, and then moved to Europe and discovered that it was a nice place to live but it wasn't much of a story, and so moved to the Middle East. And one could not live in Beirut in the early 1980s without understanding the Shiites, and understanding the Shiites always led you back to Iran. And because I'd been there, in and out of there before, I decided to go back.
LAMB:In the introduction of your book, you say, “To the memory of a thoughtful law professor who advised his students, as well as his children, to approach all problems ‘by standing on top of the world and looking down’and who was so much more than my father.” What's that all about?
WRIGHT: My father always taught me as a child that when there was some major issue, that one had to distance oneself from it, to try to stand on top of the world without having the subjective values that can impede or limit judgment. And he was always interested in foreign policy, and we traveled a lot as children, and he would try to explain other cultures to us. And so I guess what I tried to do with Iran was to go there, to stand on top of the world and look down at Iran not just as an American with my own bitterness, but as someone objective trying to see what the revolution set out to accomplish. And the book actually begins from something called the roof of Teheran, which is the top of a mountain reached by antiquated cable car, and looking down at this extraordinary capital, and looking at life a decade after the revolution and what it's like.
LAMB:In the acknowledgements you go through a lot of people, but the last sentence says, “Last, but never least, has been the inexhaustible love and encouragement of my mother.” Is your father deceased?
LAMB:Dedicated and then you acknowledge your mother. Where did you grow up
and what influence did your mother and father have on you, beyond what you just told us, and how did that get you to where you are now? Did it influence you to become a reporter?
WRIGHT: Not necessarily to become a reporter, but to be curious about things enormously. The first book I wrote I dedicated to my mother, who has visited me in most of the nine war zones I've covered. And that dedication read, “To a woman whose only comment when I covered my my ninth war was ‘How marvelous to be able to witness history’ and who is so much more than my mother.” They were marvelous parents who encouraged their children to expose themselves to other cultures, to get out there and ask questions and be curious about things.
And as little kids, we used to play geography around the table. You know, you begin with Georgia and I'd take the last letter, which is A, and come up with an Arkansas or someplace, and we expanded that as we grew older -- to include all parts of the world as we traveled and so forth, and it became a great game that we tried to discover the world and where were these places. And what was Burma like and what about Zambia? And, of course, it was I grew up in the '60s -- during the wave of independence in the Third Word, and that was an exciting time, not just for America -- 84 countries have become independent since World War II, more than half the countries on Earth, and we were kind of discovering bits and pieces as the world evolved. It was a great adventure.
LAMB:Where was home?
WRIGHT: I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then I went to a boarding school briefly in in high school, in Switzerland, went back to Michigan and college and went straight into reporting, and within a year of working for, then, the Christian Science Monitor, I was traveling overseas.
LAMB:Was your dad a law professor at Michigan?
LAMB:And you went there?
LAMB:Your mom worked while you were in school or...
WRIGHT: Both of them were academics. Mother gave up a lot because she was one of those women who kind of got caught early. She danced with Agnes de Mille. She was an actress. Now she still does plays at the age of 73. She just got back from Eastern Europe. Last year she was in China. She's a great adventurer, too.
LAMB:How has she been able to visit you in nine war zones?
WRIGHT: She hasn't visited me in all. In one case, an army beat her in. She was scheduled to come in, and they came in and took the capital and there were no more flights. She flies in and she's a great both my parents were great political sightseers. When they came to South Africa to visit me when I was based there, they didn't want to go to the game parks or the mountains or the Cape shorelines. They wanted to see Soweto and they wanted to see how Parliament functioned, and I guess I inherited a lot of that kind of interest in political sightseeing.
LAMB:In all the wars you've covered, what's the most dangerous situation you found yourself in?
WRIGHT: Oh, there are a lot of them. I suppose Angola was the most hair raising, in that in one battle, there were only 16 people -- out of 350 who made it out alive. I went down to cover some British mercenaries. I had been on the Cuban side, and I wanted to do all three sides, and I went in with these British mercenaries, and the Cubans rolled in, people I had just been with, and we took a small tugboat across the mouth of the old Congo River, now called the Zaire River, just where it meets the Atlantic, in a terrible storm, and the boat capsized and several people were killed, floated off in the water, and it took us two and a half hours, but we eventually got safely to Zaire. In Beirut, I lost an apartment from a car bomb and a hotel room from artillery fire. I mean, in every war there's been something. The side of my rib cage is crushed. I mean, you pick up these little war injuries, even being a correspondent.
LAMB:Do you ever get tired of this in extremis, where you've taken all these
WRIGHT: No, because the opportunity to witness history is just so amazing. For a little girl from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be able to have traveled with the Pope and to have interviewed Qaddafi and to have seen some of the great turning points in modern history I mean, what an opportunity.
LAMB:In your acknowledgements, you talk about the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington. What role did that play in the writing of this book?
WRIGHT: I spent two marvelous years there which offered some time to sit back and reflect on Middle East policy, on the US foreign policy-making apparatus, on the world in general. I'm one of those who believes the world's in a state of great transition. And I think to be able to see how that applied to one specific region and to look at it at broader levels, in terms of the use of religion and politics in the late 20th century, one of the world's most secular ages -- to look at the impact of war -- prolonged warfare on society and on children. And so I had a great two years there.
LAMB:How does that work? How does someone get two years to reflect on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace?
WRIGHT: Oh, you'll have to ask Carnegie about that. Every case is different.
LAMB:How do they pay for it? And where do you do this? And...
WRIGHT: It was a think tank endowed by Andrew Carnegie in 1910, and they bring in foreign policy specialists from academia, from the foreign policy community, some journalists who have been foreign correspondents, and it's like a faculty without students, who write and think and lecture and talk among themselves about things that are happening in the world.
LAMB:And what did you do right after the Carnegie experience?
WRIGHT: Then I joined the Los Angeles Times.
LAMB:And why did you do that?
WRIGHT: Well, I guess a journalist always has this divided feeling. I'm in my 40s now and I want to do serious things, but yet you don't want to give up the opportunity to get out there and see what's going on in the world. You can't give them up can't give it up completely. So I when I wrote the first book -- I taught at Duke University and did a pointer fellowship at Yale to give myself some of the media credentials, but you still there's something addictive about journalism.
LAMB:In all this time, did you ever get a sense that you want to be on the other side of the line and be in the government?
WRIGHT: No. No. Let them make the mistakes. It's more fun being the critic. Sure. I mean, there are times that one thinks about it. Could you do it could I have done it better? And I'll never know, because that's not my role.
LAMB:What role, behind the scenes, does a journalist play with officials of the government? Do they often come to you and say, “Tell me what's going on”? Do you find yourself I mean, are you ever concerned that they want to know more from you than you're willing to tell them?
WRIGHT: Oh, sometimes, but there are two different kinds of relationships. One, when you're a foreign correspondent overseas and diplomats of all nations are primary sources, and there's often a dialogue between the two. What do you hear? What are the indications? What are the future scenarios? Scenarioizing is one of the most fun games of being a foreign correspondent. And then back in Washington, it's as you know better than I, it's an enclave and we all end up talking to each other again, because we cover them and they want to know what we're hearing. There's a dialogue, I think, and it differs from individual to individual.
LAMB:Looking at a picture of Khomeini. And, by the way, if I ever mispronounce any of these names just correct me, because I am sure that there's a better way of pronouncing them. How did he ever get to where he ended up? What qualities did he have that made him a leader?
WRIGHT: I think he was a man who emerged at just the right time for Iran, at least, in Iran's context. He was a man who had fought all of his life for Iran's independence. He had personal qualities, such as extraordinary charisma. He was able to talk -- he was the great communicator, much like Ronald Reagan was. He could talk to the people in ways that made them trust him, believe him. That was an ironic similarity between the two men who clashed so often.
But he emerged also in context of a country that was going through a very troubled period throughout the 20th century this race to modernize and to Westernize. And a lot of Iranians were saying, “We are a culture that dates back 2,500 years, even 5,000 years. Why should we be dictated by this young, upstart nation that's only 200 years old? I mean, we should not abandon our history, our culture, our traditions in order to become an imitation of something else. We have to be true to ourselves.” And I think he emerged because of his own personal qualities as well as the context of political dissent in Iran at the time. There were no other alternative political alternatives. There was strong anti shah feeling, but leftists, rightists, Marxists none of the groups could provide the kind of leadership that Khomeini did.
LAMB:Was he a writer?
WRIGHT: He was a scholar, wrote some very, very heavy reading type books that have some interesting interpretations about Islam. It's funny, in a way. We in the West think he took the revolution back, as I said before, 13 centuries, when, in fact, his was in many ways the most modern of revolutions, in terms of the issues it addressed things like modernization, Westernization as well as the technology he used. I mean, he is the first revolutionary leader to lead a revolution by remote control. He wasn't Cuba he wasn't Castro in Cuba, marching through the mountains or Mao in China on his grand march through the countryside. He did it through long distance cassettes and long distance telephone calls. It's quite amazing.
LAMB:Were the cassettes audio or video?
WRIGHT: Predominantly audio. I think there were some video or some films and things that that got through towards the end. But the tape cassette was really what made the difference. People could listen. And in the bazaars in Iran, you know mixed in with the tapes of Elton John and everything else -- you could find the Khomeini tapes.
LAMB:Tell us his pattern of living? When was he born? Where was he born? And when did he first leave the country?
WRIGHT: He was born at the turn of the century, in the town of Khoman. At that time Iranians didn't have last names. That was one of the modernizations introduced by the first Shah the first Pahlavi Shah, the last shah's father, in the 1920s and '30s. He was born in the town of Khomein. Many mullahs take their names from the village where they were born. For example, Rafsanjani, the current president, he was born in Rafsanjan. There are some who keep names because they are longstanding family names or family communities. But many of them, when it came time to become a mullah, then add the name of their village to their name.
Lived in a simple, mud brick home. His family was of limited means, but both his father and his grandfather had training as clerics. His grandfather, in fact, had been quite noted. He grew up at a time when education -- like education in other parts of the Third World -- the primary means of education was through religious institutions. Little boys went to the clerical schools to learn to read, and they learned to read the Koran, just like in Africa, the missionary schools were the first source of Western education. And he became a mullah early on in life, became a very serious scholar. And by the '20s he had begun teaching at the same time the former dynasty in Iran, the Kajar dynasty, was crumbling and overthrown by a colonel in the Arabian army, who then crowned himself King Reza I, and started the path toward modernization.
Throughout that period there was a constant conflict between these two men. They epitomized the two different visions of Iran. One was to modernize, to bulldoze the bazaars and the religious institutions and the old symbols of the old way of life, and build supermarkets and all the things that were terribly modern, and there was the other side, Khomeini's vision, which was, “We can modernize, but we cannot lose sight of Islam and the process is too important -- that life is not just about material things. There has to be a spiritual side.” And the two men fought from their different institutions.
The first Pahlavi king was forced aside forced to abdicate in 1941 because of his pro Nazi views, and that's when his son inherited his throne. And that's when the rivalry ...
LAMB:The Shah that we got to know.
WRIGHT: The Shah that we got to know. That's when the rivalry began to really heat up. And by the '60s it was on the front burner and had become so volatile that the Shah forced Khomeini into exile.
LAMB:Where did he go?
WRIGHT: Well, he wandered for a while. He went to Turkey and was unhappy there, then spent most of his time in exile in Iraq, teaching, developing a network of students, and then the final few months in Paris before he returned to Teheran.
LAMB:And the dialogue on the audio tapes came from Paris?
WRIGHT: Oh, they were also sent across from Iraq. Khomeini was 60 years old before he started opposing the Shah actively -- I mean, taking a front line position against Shah Mohammed Reza.
LAMB:I want to show this map, because those who maybe have never seen the map in this way can see where Iraq is over here and the border goes right along here?
LAMB:And that's about a 700 mile border?
WRIGHT: Seven hundred and thirty miles.
LAMB:And Khomeini spent some of his time over here.
WRIGHT: In southern Iraq, yes, in Najaf. And he was teaching. He had a group of students some that came from Lebanon and that subsequently played a major role in the anti American violence in Lebanon; others who came from Iran; other Iraqi Shiites. He had a group of students who came from all over the Middle East. And they, in effect, formed a network, that, once they went back to their own countries, provided support for Khomeini in their own societies.
LAMB:Was it while he was in Iraq how to characterize it where he grew to dislike the Iraqis or the leader?
WRIGHT: I think that there was some personal animosity, besides the fact Iraq has always been a problem for Iran because the majority of the population is also Shiite, but it is run by Sunnis. And Sunnis and Shiites are the two major sects of Islam. Sunnis are more than 80 percent; the Shiites are more than 10 percent, and they've been longstanding rivals since the great schism within Islam of the seventh century. There's been a rivalry of who controls what. And Khomeini felt that the Iraqis had not treated their own Shiite population well, so there was a political issue. But there was also a personal animosity between Khomeini and the current president, Saddam Hussein. And it was Saddam Hussein, in 1978, who expelled Khomeini. And so the war that subsequently played out played out a lot on a political agenda and geographic, strategic issues, but there was also a lot of personal animosity between two men who loathed each other.
LAMB:Back to Khomeini, what are his other qualities? You say he -- by the way, what is a mullah?
WRIGHT: A mullah is a priest. It's anyone who goes through seminary and writes enough scholarship to be deemed a kind of priest. It's not a formal procedure, but anyway, he becomes a mullah. Mullah's the lowest ranking. A grand ayatollah is the highest ranking. And these are not appointments or elections. These are kind of when the community, when the following that you have deems you worthy of something, then they call you an ayatollah. There are different stages. And they mean different things -- a mirror of God or reflection of God, the voice of God, and so forth.
LAMB:Was he a good speaker?
WRIGHT: He was magical. He could enthrall Iranians, both with his piety and with his prose.
LAMB:And often in the name of religion, you had a lot of death through his direction. Did he ever explain that?
WRIGHT: Well, I think most Iranians will argue that they are not defined, the Koranic or Islamic injunctions against suicides and so forth. But they felt that they were defending survival of the faith. They looked, for example, at the deployment of the US Navy in the Persian Gulf in '87 and '88, not just as a conflict trying to contain Iran, but as an effort to contain Islam, much as the outside world blocked the path of the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. Now to you and me that's ludicrous. Of course, that's not what we were doing in the Persian Gulf.
But they genuinely believed it. After all, why would we be in the Persian Gulf? I mean, that had no more justification than for the Iranian navy to be around Cuba. It just didn't make sense to them geographically. So it must mean we had an ulterior motive. And they have a different way of looking at the relationship, at the role of Islam in society. They look at everything in terms of religion the revolutionary leaders do. That does not mean the average Iranian does, but the revolutionary leaders do. And that's hard for those of us who live in a constitutionally secular nation to fathom, because religion is so private for us.
LAMB:How many people live in Iran?
WRIGHT: 52 million.
WRIGHT: It's about a third of that a quarter of that. Fourteen million, maybe.
LAMB:In the war that just recently concluded, how many Iranians lost their lives?
WRIGHT: Well, there are conflicting claims. The Iranians claim it's about 120,000, when, in fact, the estimates for the entire war, in terms of casualties, deaths and injuries, go as high as a million. So it's somewhere in between I'm not sure we're going to know.
LAMB:Were the Iranians from your experience talking to them over there, were they in favor of that war?
WRIGHT: I think that there were many who felt that Iraq invaded and had no grounds to and so nationalism became a big factor in rallying support. A lot of people who were opposed to the regime felt that this was an incursion that everyone must get out and fight. So yes, they supported the early stages of the war. I think, toward the end, because of the use of chemical gas by the Iraqis, because of the war of the cities, in which long range missiles were fired on communities that had not been exposed to the war, because of the high death toll, that a lot of Iranians became very disillusioned with that conflict.
LAMB:The book -- did you actually physically write it the whole time you were
WRIGHT: No, I didn't. Carnegie doesn't allow books, so I wrote it after I left.
LAMB:Really? When do you write? Are you an early morning writer?
WRIGHT: No, I'm a late night writer. I work during the days, and I get home -- and I have a computer at home, and I have a wonderful, big, old house in Georgetown -- and I finally moved my computer into my bedroom, because I was one or two places, and I figured I might as well be realistic about it.
LAMB:You did a couple of things in this book that you don't often see. One of them is this right here we'll get a close up on it a “Cast of Characters.” What is it?
WRIGHT: It's a list of the people who appear in the book, because they are foreign names and it's often very difficult for us, if it's not a Smith or a Jones, to remember them. And so I wanted there to be a list.
LAMB:How did you decide what names to put in?
WRIGHT: I actually tried to limit the number of Iranian figures, using just the big names, the well known names, so that there wouldn't be too much confusion. I wrote this book for the average American, to help them understand Iran not to apologize for Iran, but to explain it, so that somewhere down the road there's a wonderful Iranian who said to me, “You thought you understood Iran because the Shah spoke English and because his Cabinet had read Shakespeare. But you and the Shah fail to understand Iran because you were looking for reflections of yourself.” And my goal was for us to understand Iran and try to accept it without looking for images of ourselves.
LAMB:When you look through, there are a lot of names that I personally
remember during the whole hostage thing ... Abolhassan Bani Sadir, whatever happened to him?
WRIGHT: He's an exile in France, continues to speak out on Iranian
issues, very unhappy with the course of events in Iran.
WRIGHT: Ghorbanifar was executed. Oh, Ghorbanifar no, he was the one involved in the Iran Contra. I was thinking of Gotsbodahi, the former foreign minister who was executed for plotting against the government. Ghorbanifar is probably somewhere off in Europe after the failure of Iran Contra, probably trying to keep a low profile, make some money -- who knows?
LAMB:Have you ever talked to any of these people in the last couple of years? Have you ever been able to reach any of them?
WRIGHT: Not Bani Sadr. Some of his information is good, but it's hard to tell what part of it is good or not. I choose to go and try to see it for myself, and I find that more useful.
LAMB:Who do you consider to be, right now, the leader in Iran that you would most want to follow -- believe what they say?
WRIGHT: I think the new president, Rafsanjani, is clearly the man of the future, if he can survive, politically and physically. There have been a number of assassination attempts against him, shortly after the revolution and more recently. I think he is the man who will shape the post Khomeini era, will determine whether or at what stage the United States is approachable and can be dealt with again. He is a man who is very shrewd. There's a wonderful anecdote about him in Teheran, that the foreign minister and the former president and Rafsanjani were in a car, and they came to a T junction. And the driver said, “Which way can I turn?” And the former president said, “Turn right.” And the former prime minister said, “Turn left.” And the driver turned to Rafsanjani and said, “What do I do?” And Rafsanjani said, “Signal left, turn right.”
LAMB:How did he get where he is?
WRIGHT: He's an unusual man. He, again, came from Rafsanjan and did his education all through religious schools. Studied under Khomeini as a very young man, in the city near Teheran called Qum, which is a theological center, and became very active, after Khomeini was expelled, in keeping alive Khomeini's vision. And for that he was imprisoned at least four times by the Shah. One of the posters I saw it's still up in Teheran -- shows a picture of Rafsanjani in his prison garb without his white turban, in prison overalls, with a number underneath, showing that he had spent in jail.
But his family was in the pistachio business. His brother went to Berkley didn't graduate, but spent at least four years there, and now runs Iranian television. And it's very funny, because he keeps up with what's going on in the United States through the downlink of satellite they get. So he sees "Nightline" every night and when I've talked to him, he's talked about recent programs on "Nightline." As I said, they're not isolated from us.
LAMB:Does he speak English?
WRIGHT: Yes, very good English.
LAMB:And you have talked to him before?
WRIGHT: Yes. Yes, I've spent a lot of time talking to him.
LAMB:And when you go over there, now well, you said that there are often windows of an opportunity if you got a window of opportunity in the next couple of months, would you go there?
WRIGHT: Oh, I'd always go to Iran. I think that they will not be pleased with my book, because at the end I say Khomeini did one thing for the revolution, he survived 10 years and during that period he helped entrench it.
But his greatest failing was well, he did fail his revolution, because in the aftermath of the war the ending of the war a year ago -- Iran had begun almost pell mell to open up to the outside world, renewing relations with France, Britain and Canada, holding international trade fairs to which companies from all over Europe and the Western world were showing. It looked like there was going to be this basis for commerce again. European hostages were released in Beirut. It really looked like there was movement.
And then suddenly, in February, as Iran celebrated its 10th anniversary, Khomeini issued the death edict on Salman Rushdie for his book, "Satanic Verses," and then he fired his heir apparent for, basically, saying things that were far too pragmatic for Khomeini's taste. And he...
LAMB:Who was his his heir apparent?
WRIGHT: Ali Montazeri -- he fired him. But that was pulling the rug out from underneath a movement that was gaining great speed. Iran looked like it was going to take its place among the community of nations, again. And he left all of these people who had set that train in motion, basically, totally exposed. And now I think that Rafsanjani is under a lot of pressure because that was the last message Khomeini left. And therefore, it's going to be very difficult for him to deviate too much from that too quickly without his revolutionary credentials being questioned.
LAMB:Who controls his future?
WRIGHT: Well, he does, more than anyone else, but I think there is opposition, in terms of the Mujahedeen il Khalq. The People's Mujahedeen is an Islamic group, but also a Marxist group has challenged him. Rafsanjani has claimed that opposition groups have been behind assassination attempts. Revolutions are not single events, they are processes. And this is, in effect, a new stage of that ongoing process. It is going to continue to be a revolutionary, and therefore, a volatile environment.
LAMB:If you picked up the telephone and tried to reach him, would he take
WRIGHT: No, I doubt it.
LAMB:If you wanted ...
WRIGHT: I don't think he takes any calls directly.
LAMB:If you went there to visit again, would he see you now?
WRIGHT: Oh, I don't know. I mean, he does like to see the press -- that's his medium for sending messages to the United States or to other people with whom he's interested in communicating.
LAMB:If an American just wanted to go to Teheran right now and applied for a visa, could one get one if they weren't a member of the press?
WRIGHT: There are some Americans who've gone over recently for conferences held at Teheran University or at the foreign ministry think tank. It would depend on your interest, your reason. Is someone in government going to sponsor you? There are some Americans who still live there. There's a man who runs a travel agency, of all things married an Iranian, liked the environment and stayed. He's from San Antonio and he speaks with a strong Texas twang, drawl, whatever it is in Texas. There are a number of American women who married Iranians and have stayed there. I met one who'd been there 53 years and she wasn't going to leave. Even though she was a sweet, little, old, white haired lady from the Midwest but she managed to survive the revolution.
LAMB:I want to go back to something you said earlier when we were talking about students. You said there was some 10,000 Iranian students that are here in this country.
WRIGHT: That's a rough figure.
LAMB:How do they get in?
WRIGHT: They apply for visas. They apply, first, to universities. And if they're accepted, then they apply for visas. And the US, I think, has quietly encouraged that but not made it easy. They're not looking for trouble in the United States. But I think that this is often a way we expose other cultures to the United States. After all, our geographic separateness from so much of the world means that people don't know us as well - know our culture as well, either. And that's a good way to build friends, maybe.
LAMB:I remember some time ago reading I think a saw a chart in The New York Times. It showed the number of students from around the world in this
country and Iran led, and it may have been 36,000 students were supposed to be here from Iran. Why did we have, at that time, so many Iranian students?
WRIGHT: Well, during the Shah's era there were even more than that, largely in the liberal arts, humanities, but as well as some of the professional fields -- because that was the way to get a good education. If you wanted a really good education, you went abroad, whether it was to France or the United States. Now there are fewer, in part because of foreign exchange problems into Iran, and now they're studying different things medicine, engineering, agriculture those things that will promote development in Iran.
LAMB:This is very provincial and it's something that I've experienced here, but there are a lot of Iranians around the Washington area, and you can just as soon get an Iranian cab driver coming out of Dulles Airport as anything. And I've had lots of conversations over the years, when you arrive in this town, and one of them told me one time that, “Don't believe what you see on television.” And he was very much committed to being out of there, but said, “Don't believe what you see on television. The government pays those people to get out there in front of the embassy or whatever and to demonstrate.” Is there any truth to that story?
WRIGHT: Oh, I think there are often times that the government pulls out martyrs' families or its friends and brings them to very important celebrations or prayer services and so forth, to show that there's still this great fervor. I don't think they're rent a crowds, necessarily. But it's interesting that an Iranian who lives in this country says that. And I have to tell you for every time I've come back from Iran, it's almost uncanny, I always get an Iranian cab driver from Dulles. I've had two former admirals in the navy and one former commandant or commander of the Abadan fleet, who are now driving taxis out of Dulles. And they've been fascinated and wanted to know everything about their country, as many of them still have relatives there and would like to go back.
LAMB:Why do they do what they do? Why do they come here and drive a cab?
WRIGHT: Well, I think that there was a great fear during the early stages of the revolution, particularly during the very bloody reign of terror that ended in late '82, early '83, because of the purges, the executions, that there was no future, and it was better to get out alive and drive a cab someplace than to endanger execution at home.
LAMB:One gets a sense that there's a network of -- there's a citizen's band radio and you can hear them talking to their friends around-- are there a lot of Iranians that live in this area and are there a lot of Iranians that live in the United States?
WRIGHT: The largest Iranian community outside Iran is in Los Angeles.
LAMB:Why did they pick Los Angeles?
WRIGHT: Probably climate -- place for new enterprise and development. I think some went there and found it comfortable. I mean, there are large Iranian communities in a lot of cities in Washington or Detroit -- a lot of places. But I think there's something like 400,000 in Southern California.
LAMB:Back to your book again. In the back of the book, you devote a lot of
pages to a thing called “Chronology.” What's that for?
WRIGHT: I wrote a long chronology of the revolution, trying to group events military, political, whatever together so that those of us who have seen only those limited pictures on television or read little bits from correspondents who got in during the windows of opportunity, could fill in the gaps, could see what happened, could fit together the pieces. The goal of the book was to give an overview of the 10 years. I didn't want to have to deal with every specific event, so I chose to put that in a chronology.
LAMB:How did you do this?
WRIGHT: Oh, a laborious process of going through something -- the Broad the United States government puts out called the Foreign Broadcast Information Service going through every single headline, to try to track things, drawing on other journals. It was a real labor of love, to try to figure out what was important and what Americans would take an interest in.
LAMB:And I also noticed in the acknowledgement you listed a lot of professors from different schools around the country. Did you have people read this manuscript for...
WRIGHT: I drew on everyone -- I drew on everyone from Iranian born scholars to people who were involved in Iran Contra to former hostages, to some of my colleagues who have been to Iran. I tried to get everyone involved in offering additional perspective, background.
LAMB:One other thing on your book. In the back you also do a thing called “Source Notes.” How come so much documentation?
WRIGHT: Because it's a controversial era and I want to make sure that anyone who thinks that I'm saying something controversial knows that there are good footnotes and that there's a source for it, that it's not just a journalist's book, but it's a thoughtful, serious work as well.
LAMB:Do you consider yourself at The Los Angeles Times only an expert now on Iran or do you have a worldwide beat?
WRIGHT: I have a worldwide beat. I do national security. I focus, because of my experience in the Middle East, a lot on terrorism, on things like chemical warfare. I'm also now in the process of looking at kind of some of the broader political changes in the world, some of the new themes emerging in ideology, in sociopolitical forces such as ethnicity, religion and politics, the changing nature of warfare. After nine wars, I think I have a right to kind of look at where the trend is headed, because while the superpowers are disarming, the Third World certainly isn't. And I think things like chemical warfare and missiles are going to increasingly be controlled by Third World countries that are not only using them, but producing them.
LAMB:Will Iran play as big a role in our country's future in the next 10 years as it has in the last 10 years?
WRIGHT: Hopefully not. But it's going to be a volatile period for Iran. And, of course, whenever that country goes through a volatile period, it spills over into the United States. I would hope that in the next year, 18 months, that there is some kind of resolution of the hostage phenomena so that we can get back to the really serious issues that are important to the two countries. I'd also like to see my friends freed.
LAMB:Did I read that you said something to the effect that it takes $360 billion to rebuild the country?
WRIGHT: Well, the estimates on reconstruction after the war range from $350 billion to $500 billion. I mean, we're talking a lot of money. And one of the problems, too, is that many of the kind of things that you do every five years, whether it's painting a room or reinforcing a bridge or whatever, haven't been done and there's an awful lot of basic infrastructure, unaffected by the war, that needs to be attended to.
LAMB:Our guest for the last hour has been Robin Wright. And she is currently with The Los Angeles Times. This is what her book looks like, "In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade." Thank you very much for joining us.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
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