CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto recently returned from Iran to cover U.S.-Iran relations. It was his 11th trip there. Sciutto also covers everything from U.S. foreign policy to defense, terrorism, and intelligence issues.
On Monday, he took 90 minutes to answer questions about national security during a Reddit “Ask me Anything” session.
1. What’s the most shocking/disturbing thing you’ve seen in Iran:
“I'd have to say it was the 9/11 conspiracy theory still being peddled inside the former U.S. Embassy there. They'd painted a mural on the wall leading up the main staircase telling a story of how the U.S. manufactured the whole thing to justify attacking the ME. Now, I'd heard this conspiracy many times before in the region, but to see it still alive and well 13 years later was sobering. And like I said to the tour guide in the embassy who was trying to sell me on the story, I've just lost patience with this at this point. Here's the link to my story there.”
2. Do you think Iran could have a popular uprising like Egypt or does the majority of the population seem content with the way things are?
“I'd say the majority of the population is definitely not content with the status quo. In 11 trips there, and particularly on this latest trip, I just sense pure exhaustion with the state of the economy and Iran's international isolation. But will that send people into the streets? Some tried it in 2009 after the disputed election with no success. And Iran has a very good handle on policing. I just didn't sense a brewing revolution. And right now, there is at least some skeptical hope that a nuclear deal with the West will lead to improved lives.”
3. Do people in Iran really hate Americans or are they actually friendly people?
“Absolutely not. Look at how these kids reacted when I told them I'm an American:
But I've always found that Iranians tend to like Americans more than people from many of our allies in the region – and the public polls back this up. Look at Americans' favorability ratings in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, and they're not too warm and fuzzy! In 11 trips to Iran, even when relations between Tehran and Washington were ice-cold, I have almost always gotten a respectful and warm welcome from most Iranians.”
4. Does the media exaggerate the conditions in Iran?
“I think Iran is a country which suffers from a phenomenon a lot of countries do: a focus on caricatures. Americans have a caricatured vision of Iranians, based in part on the over-use of images like the ‘death to America’ chants for instance. Part of the reason for this is that too few foreign journalists visit Iran, or are able to. It's also due to a broader temptation among journalists to fall back on caricatures to add impact or to shorthand complicated issues. Here's an example. I've been to Iran 11 times and every time I talk about how most Iranians want better relations with the U.S.. But every time I go back, friends and colleagues ask me if I'm scared to go!”
5. On Internet access in Iran:
“Well, Twitter, FB etc. are still blocked there, so I had to access those through my international smartphone. Instagram is open. President Rouhani promised to end those blockages but has yet to deliver and I heard a lotof frustration with it there. Of course the great irony is that (President Hassan) Rouhani, ( Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif and others all use Twitter and FB themselves! So I asked Zarif about this and he told me two things: one, they're still working on it but have opposition from hard-liners and two, he uses a VPN himself!”
6. What happens if Vladimir Putin decides to intervene militarily in Ukraine?
“From what U.S. and other western diplomats tell me, this would be a very damaging development. Even among the non-government analysts I speak with, I don't hear anyone who sees outside force as the answer. The trouble is, Russia has real interests in Ukraine, and one key to stabilizing the situation is getting Russian buy-in and that will be a key challenge going forward.”
7. What do you think is the most threatening "silent conflict" (either active or simmering) that gets very little news coverage but has important implications for the rest of the world?
“I have to say it's the territorial dispute between China and Japan in the South and East China Seas. When I was in China, this was at the top of the news virtually every day, but back home it only occasionally captures attention. Fact is, it's about much more than a few tiny uninhabited islands (Senkaku's to the Japanese, Diaoyu's to Chinese). It's about China's growth as a regional power – and expressions of that growth – and Japan's nervousness with that growth. It's also about intense emotions in each country, going back to WW II. Trouble is, politicians on both sides stoke those emotions and once they do, they're hard to tamp down. I had a worrying conversation with Chinese university students last year who told me they think war with Japan is inevitable. If you're youngest and brightest are saying that, that's a problem.”
8. On getting reliable sources to give important information that shape the international stories we see every day.
“It's not easy. One challenge is to get officials to go beyond set talking points to answer the questions we actually pose. It sometimes amazes me how so many corners of the government will use the exact same phrasing to answer questions on Iran, Syria, NSA, you name it. The press shops these days are so well-managed. It really takes developing as broad a range of sources as possible and building trust over time – which has always been true. But it also takes resisting packaged news tidbits which don't have much substance”
9. On whether he’s ever been too close to the action:
“Several times. And I feel very lucky because several close friends and colleagues have been injured or killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Once I was in a Marine convoy in southern Afghanistan which was hit by an IED. I remember seeing the wheel of a Humvee fly into the air in silence – before the sound of explosion registered in my ears. It was spooky. This was when my wife was pregnant with my first son, so it was the first time I was gambling with more than my own personal safety. As I hunkered down and waiting for the secondary attack, I remember thinking to myself this isn't just risky, this is irresponsible. I've tried to reduce my trips to war zones since but when you cover these stories, you often simply have to be there.”
10. What's the first thing you eat when you get back in the states after a long time away?
“Really good Italian! Unless I'm coming back from Italy of course, where I just inhale the food. But I will say I love eating locally in most places. This latest trip to Iran was a culinary adventure. I took a lot of pictures to remember. You can see some here.”