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World

Inside Iran: A Jewish Journalist's Exclusive Look

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A few weeks ago an American Jewish journalist received a visa to report from Iran. That by itself was not unusual.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But Larry Cohler-Esses works for The Forward, a leading Jewish newspaper published in New York. His was the first visa granted to an explicitly Jewish media organization since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

INSKEEP: Cohler-Esses visited the shrine to the late founder of the Islamic Republic. He found people hostile to Israel but mostly just curious about him.

LARRY COHLER-ESSES: I went to Imam Khomeini's tomb which is guarded by the Iran Revolutionary Guard and we started up a conversation with the guard memberS. It started out to be a very guarded conversation, no pun intended. But after an hour, he was asking all kinds of questions about America, also asking questions about Israel. And it was just a very interesting discussion that went on for more than one hour.

INSKEEP: Cohler-Esses was having that discussion at a dramatic moment. He arrived just after Iran agreed with the United States and other world powers on a deal to limit its nuclear program. That agreement is strongly opposed in Israel and is being questioned by much of Congress. But in Iran, Cohler-Esses found widespread enthusiasm for the deal.

COHLER-ESSES: There's an air of enthusiasm around it that didn't seem always to be tied to specifically understanding what was going to happen and when it was going to happen and what it would do. I knew a lot about the economic statistics about unemployment in Iran, about economic deprivation. And I expected that that would be what people would talk about when they talked about what they look forward to. But the curious thing was that people most people talked about their hunger to be reconnected with the world, their sense of isolation and their eagerness to see more Americans and even more Jews.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that people essentially were for this deal because of what it might mean for them - their lives could improve or they believed that in some ways their lives would improve?

COHLER-ESSES: Yes, I think that's accurate. And I should say that in some cases, they didn't even have a great expectation that their lives would improve. I did a few interviews where the guys we were talking to said, yes, this is going to be a good deal. It will reconnect us with the world, but I don't think my life's going to change much because the government's going to reap all the benefits, not the people. Incidentally, that was one of many criticisms I heard on the record of their own government, which was another surprising aspect to me. And in some cases they were willing to be videoed doing this. Something about the election of Rouhani and now the signing of this deal has set free maybe something like freedom of tongue, if not freedom of the press.

INSKEEP: I feel like what you're describing is different than Iran of even a year ago, say, when many people would speak very, very bluntly and freely on the streets, but they wouldn't want to give their full names, certainly wouldn't want to be photographed.

COHLER-ESSES: I expected something more like what you just described, but there were many people willing to speak on the record. One guy even criticized - not Ayatollah Khamenei, the current so-called leader, but the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini for wasting lives fruitlessly during Iran-Iraq War. That is a sacred cause, and he went on video and talked about that.

INSKEEP: What would you say to an American member of Congress who might call you up and say, you know, in a few weeks I have to vote on this. And this deal really bothers me, and I'm very concerned about it. Can you give me any insight that would help me decide one way or the other?

COHLER-ESSES: I could not take a position on the agreement, but I could tell them that it might be worthwhile to be aware that Iran is not a monolith. Even in the senior religious hierarchy, there is dissent and debate and division over what they should do next about America, what they should do next about Israel. There's no doubt that the supreme leader's been very clear on the issue of Israel. He disagrees with the fact of its existence, but even among his colleagues at the Grand Ayatollah level, I spoke with individuals that said that our problem with Israel is not its existence, but its policies. That is an important distinction in terms of the future.

INSKEEP: Has anybody in the United States or in Israel said, come on, you were being used by the Iranians, they dragged you in as a propaganda ploy?

COHLER-ESSES: Yes, that was a concern of mine. Listeners should know that their's a matter of rules and policy in Iran. The non-resident journalists are obliged to engage the services of a government-licensed fixer. And his job is to take your interview requests and try to set them up for you, but I did talk to citizens and they were happy to talk to me about their criticisms of the Iranian government. Also, I was able to speak Grand Ayatollahs who are in opposition to the supreme leader who talked to me about their unhappiness with the agreement because it doesn't incorporate human rights concerns. This kind of feedback gave me some assurance that I was getting information that was not cooked.

INSKEEP: Larry Cohler-Esses of The Forward. Thanks very much.

COHLER-ESSES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Now while in Iran, Cohler-Esses also visited the country's Jewish communities. More than 8,000 Jews still live there according to a census a few years ago, but thousands more have left over the decades. Earlier this year, this program also spent time with some of Iran's Jews. Let's listen again to some of our visit with members of a diminishing tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: One of Iran's three main Jewish communities is in the city of Isfahan, where we attended a morning prayer service. About two dozen people came. It's in a brick synagogue with simple stained-glass windows that bring to mind some modest church in the American Midwest. Here the worshipers were free to say their morning prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

INSKEEP: This man recited, there's no God like our God. Noticing strangers in the pews, a middle-age man sought our attention and addressed us in English. He gave his name as Daniel Ayeneszan and said that he used to live in New York City.

DANIEL AYENESZAN: I lived in America for 20 years. I'm an American citizen, so this is my hometown. I came back here...

INSKEEP: He went from Isfahan to America as a youth and worked in New York a few blocks from Macy's.

AYENESZAN: We were selling ladies clothes.

INSKEEP: Oh, ladies clothes

AYENESZAN: Yes.

INSKEEP: On Broadway.

AYENESZAN: On Broadway and 37th Street. It's a garment center. You've been there?

INSKEEP: Ten years ago, he returned to Isfahan - first, to mourn his mother's death and then to search for a wife.

You didn't find one.

AYENESZAN: Because I'm Jewish, and Jewish community are very small.

INSKEEP: A lot smaller than it used to be. The truth is, the whole Middle East is going through a great and brutal sorting of faiths. In country after country, Christians are driven out, Jews are pushed into Israel, groups like Yazidis are targeted by ISIS. Sunni Muslims push out Shias, and Shias push out Sunnis. It's an attack on the fantastic religious diversity that has distinguished the Middle East for millennia. The Jews who still recite the prayer of mourning, call the Kaddish in Iran, are daily resisting that trend.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in Hebrew).

INSKEEP: A synagogue in Isfahan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.