His father came to Germany from Yazd in 1965 and opened a carpet store in Munich. Natalie Amiri traveled between Germany and Iran for several years to report as a reporter on a land full of contradictions. The dangers of working in a regime that ranks 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom is just one of the topics Natalie discusses in her first book, “Between Worlds – From Power & Powerlessness In Iran,” recently published in Germany. This work is an expression of the author’s deep and personal love for the Iranian people and a ruthless settlement with the regime.
– Ms. Amiri, you have been interrogated many times by the Ministry of Intelligence and also the IRGC Intelligence. How real were the threats, which forced you to leave the country last year and hand over the management of the ARD TV network office in Tehran?
They were very real. The (Germany) Foreign Ministry was also concerned that due to the deteriorating foreign policy situation, the Islamic Republic would take (me as a) hostage for possible negotiations. This has happened many times in the past to other German / Iranian dual nationals, some of whom are currently in detention. Other people with dual citizenship have also been detained from various European countries. This way Islamic Republic puts pressure on the negotiating parties of the nuclear deal.
I’m considered an Iranian by the regime in Iran
– Wasn’t there anything the German government could do for you if you were arrested? Because Iran recognizes you as its citizen?
Exactly! If I had been arrested, there would have been nothing they could do. Even to the extent that they visit me in prison. For the regime in Iran, I am considered an Iranian. My German passport is worthless there.
– The intelligence forces tried to recruit you. Isn’t it too naive to believe that an ARD reporter would be willing to cooperate?
This happened in 2010. I told them, no matter what you offer me, I am a European journalist, I want to be able to look in the mirror tomorrow with a clear conscience, I do not work for you, besides, I had nothing to give them. I was even offered to be imprisoned for a few days, so that it could be used as a publicity stunt to promote me. They’re not amateurs, they know how the world works, they’ve become experts.
– At that time, the intelligence agents confronted you with details of your student life in Bamberg. How can Iran’s intelligence agencies know such things?
I cannot prove it, but I have heard that Iranian studies students in Germany are supervised by intelligence agencies. That is because after 9/11, students of Oriental and Iranian studies suddenly became desirable candidates for the BND (Federal Intelligence Agency) and the Federal Criminal Police Office and the German Federal Border Guard. We were a very small group of students. I had five classmates in Bamberg. In general, in my opinion, Iran’s intelligence agencies are much more active than we know. They are everywhere. The Revolutionary Guards’ overseas unit is expanding its network in Africa and Asia.
A little hope was there
– You left Iran in 2011 after 5 years of residence. What made you accept the post as head of “ARD” office in Tehran 4 years later?
I had just regrouped. When one falls in love with a country this way, has access to its deeper layers, speaks its language and is able to convey something of its reality to others, one does not reject such an offer. It was also the post-Ahmadinejad era; There was little hope. I have written many reports about strong, educated and emancipated women, who are numerous in Iran, today. I wanted to show that most Iranians do not condone the 1979 Islamic revolution, they long for freedom and establishing relations with the West. On TV, unfortunately, everything is limited to short news. But with this book I can show the complexity of Iran, convey the Iranian spirit to Germany.
– According to estimates, in no other Islamic country is the number of religious people as small as in Iran. How can a system constantly rule against 80% of the people?
How? The regime is armed to the teeth and has created a militia group (Basij), which confronts the people with a stick, beats the citizens or kill them with bullets whenever people rise up against the regime and defend their rights. The IRGC intelligence is very efficient and dangerous and nips any protest in the bud. But nowadays, social networks are the mouthpiece of Iranian civil society and have made it possible to communicate with each other and organize. Also, in this space, revelations about the corruption of senior regime officials are increasingly made available to the public: photos of mullahs’ sons celebrating and having fun at champagne parties in London or Paris.
Huge waves of protests in coming years
– In recent years, large waves of protests have formed.
In my opinion, as soon as Corona lets people take it to the streets, there will be more widespread protests than ever before.
– According to official sources, Iran, with a population equal to Germany, has suffered less damage from Coronavirus. Do you believe this?
No. In March 2020, a delegation from the World Health Organization in Iran announced that the actual COVID-19 numbers in Iran were probably five times the official figures. An epidemiologist from National Task Force claimed in a newspaper that the actual figures were 20 times higher than the official figures. Following the publication, the newspaper was seized and the epidemiologist was arrested.
– Presidential elections will be held in June. One of the prominent candidates is Hossein Dehghan, one of the IRGC commanders. What does this mean politically?
It means the Revolutionary Guards seizes the leadership of the executive branch as well. 80% of Iran’s economy is now under IRGC’s control, with many judges, a large part of the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the media at its disposal. The Revolutionary Guards, in my opinion, has long been at the forefront of politics. Only so far no one has mentioned this as a coup, because IRGC is part of the system.
– The US government has officially listed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. This does not facilitate interaction with the West at the diplomatic level.
Not at all. That is why IRGC does not enter the public arena in official talks. The fact of the matter, however, is that the “supreme leader” determines foreign policy. He is higher in the power pyramid than IRGC. But Khamenei is 82 years old and seems to have been suffering from prostate cancer for a long time. The question is, what will happen when he dies? Will a religious figure lead the republic again? Or the IRGC is waiting for that day to come and seize all power.
Taxi drivers’ pet speech: “God bless King’s soul.”
– You have written in your book that taxi drivers often at the goodbye time, say “God bless King’s soul”. Is this Iranian humor or some kind of irony?
No, this is kind of a romanticized and nostalgic memory of when Shah was in power, which many now wish to return to that time.
– The Shah’s son, Cyrus Reza Pahlavi, spreads his words in exile through social media. Can he be taken seriously as an opposition figure?
From the Islamic Republic’s perspective, he is the most dangerous figure in the opposition. I once interviewed his mother, Farah Diba, in Paris. After that interview, my press card was confiscated for three months and I was not allowed to work as a journalist. Obviously, he does not want the return of the monarchy, but he is trying to establish democracy. But he was a teenager in 1979, when he left the country, and after that he could not go to Iran anymore. Iran is very complex, the nation’s soul is severely damaged and wounded, and its social reconstruction requires great delicacy and sensitivity. It is doubtful to me that the king’s son is able to do this. But on the other hand, in the current situation, it is impossible for a figure inside the country to become the opposition leader. Such person will be eliminated immediately.
– You quote those who approve of Trump’s policy of withdrawing from the JCPOA and imposing tough sanctions, because sanctions hasten the overthrow of the regime – at the cost of much civil society suffering.
This approach is often prevalent among Iranians in exile whose daily lives are not directly affected. But one thing is clear: sanctions are causing Iran’s money to run out.
– With the publication of this book, you slammed the door behind you. You can no longer travel to Iran.
Anyway, this is the price I have to pay to be able to tell what is going on in that country.
– After the signing of JCPOA in 2015, the number of German tourists traveling to Iran had increased until the corona came. Do you think that traveling to Iran as a tourist in order to discover the beauties of this country after Corona constitutes a moral problem?
In my opinion, there are two levels to this: at the political level, Germany and the European Union should carefully consider what approach they want to adopt towards Iran, where human rights are being violated in the most severe way possible, and many people are executed by the regime. Do we leave it to empty and official statements such as “We strongly condemn…”? Or are we really defending human rights, with all its consequences? But there is a second level that is specific to civil society. Why should we not try to form exchanges and connections at this level as much as possible? If tourists, in addition to the media, give a real picture of Iran, there is certainly no problem. In this way, friendships are formed, collaborations and non-governmental organizations are formed.
– In the book you have written, you paint a dark picture for citizens’ future.
The middle class is almost non-existent in Iran, and the vibrancy I was still able to experience three or four years ago is gone. I was talking to a friend just yesterday; she told me she can no longer feel anything. She did not know which problem was bigger: that she could not find insulin for her mother, or that she did not know where to get the money to prepare food, fear of COVID-19 or fear that the intelligence agents would raid her house and arrest her for what she posted on social media. In this country, everything is dark and black. A feeling of extreme lethargy and depression has taken over the society. Hope, which is one of the topics in my book, is dead.
– But not your hope, completely. You’ve written, you will go to this land again one day. In the utopia after overthrowing of the regime, without a headscarf and hijab, where in the country do you drink your first tea?
In Yazd, my father’s hometown. My dream is to one day set up a small hotel there, the day when Iran is finally free.
Translation of the interview posted by Sahar.
Natalie Amiri was interviewed by Abendzeitung reporter:
Iran: Die Menschen sehnen sich nach Freiheit