Paranoid in Tehran

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TIME's Tehran correspondent examines what daily life is really like in Iran

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One afternoon last month, I sat drinking tepid coffee with an Iranian academic in the lobby of a Tehran hotel, and remembered with sadness how relaxed such meetings used to be, and how tense and paranoid, even Soviet, they've become. We didn't talk so much as whisper, all the while eyeing the felt-covered furniture around us, half expecting a bearded agent to pop out from behind a fake plant, or the waiter to slip a listening device under the sugar bowl. Instead of discussing how Iran could avoid a nuclear crisis with the West, we talked about how we could avoid being labeled enemies of the state. Who cares about uranium enrichment when you spend your days and nights fretting over whether you're a potential target of arrest? "Do you think you're followed?" he asked, barely audible over the air-conditioning. I had to stop crunching on a butter cookie to hear him. "Hmm, maybe? But I don't think so," I said, wishing for a James Bond gadget-watch that would beep if I was. My answer must not have been reassuring, because when it came time to leave, he avoided walking out with me. "I'll just wrap up here," he said, pretending to shuffle some papers with a wary smile. Such is life in Tehran in the shadow of the Bush Administration's policy of regime change — or building opposition to the mullahs, or whatever you want to call the U.S. campaign to alter Iran's government. Ever since President Bush earlier this year appealed to Iranians to "win your own freedom," and launched a $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran, reporting from Tehran has taken on the flavor of Cold War novel. The government is obsessed with the U.S. plot for 'velvet revolution,' hardline papers declare the most innocuous people (including one sculptor) subversive, and everyone plays the 'who's really a U.S. agent?' guessing game.

These days, most of the things I used to do as an American reporter are either potentially illegal or seriously unwise. I avoid meeting too many activists, and many avoid meeting with me. There's a mutual fear that a Western journalist plus an opposition figure equals plot. The thing is, now that student dissidents, bloggers, and women's movement leaders have been identified (branded) by the United States as potential agents of peaceful change, they have become perceived as security threats by the Iranian government.

I used to be less cautious. But there used to be more room for Iranians who advocated democracy, and more room for stories about their efforts. When I was asked to co-write the memoirs of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate and human rights defender, I didn't think twice. That was before the government banned her NGO, a clear sign they were not interested in putting up with her anymore. Now when she calls, I babble about my dogs, anxious to hang up. She's taught me a lot about what to do if I ever end up in prison, but I'd like to avoid putting that knowledge to use.

I don't attend seminars and conferences in the United States anymore. Those are the venues where the velvet revolution is being plotted, don't you know? Heaven forbid a US official, past or present, actually speaks to you at such a conclave (better they speak to the opposition in exile, armed with their irrelevant memories of the 1970s). You might as well come back to Tehran with a bull's eye painted on the back of your headscarf.

I avoid appearing frequently on Western radio and television, because criticism is tolerated less than ever, and if I have to soften my analysis I'd rather not say anything at all. I've given up meeting with Western diplomats, who are considered the local spy-masters. Better to read what Western officials say in the newspapers than bulk up my intelligence file. When Iranians journalists ask me for help applying for fellowships in the US or Europe, I say No. Ever since the Intelligence Minister said the United States is exploiting Iranian journalists as part of its conspiracy against the Islamic Republic, editing an essay could easily be viewed as aiding and abetting espionage. I'm far too nervous to keep serving as a link with American organizations who want to set up exchanges with Iranian young people. Nothing is better than cultural exchange, but the notion here is referred to as the Trojan horse.

To be fair, it needs to be said that the Iranian theocracy is plenty paranoid and repressive on its own. It bullied its opposition long before the United States unveiled its regime change intentions. But really, what were the clerics expected to do when informed that the US had opened up a listening post in Dubai, and called it the "21st century equivalent" of a station in Latvia that monitored the Soviet Union in the 1930s? Start issuing permits for independent newspapers and releasing political prisoners?

I don't know a single Iranian scholar, intellectual, organizer, or journalist whose life and pursuits have not been dampened by this current U.S. policy. Who is it actually benefiting? From where I sit, freedom has never seemed so remote.