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'Frontline' Series With Thomas Erdbrink: 'Our Man In Tehran'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran earlier this month after pulling out of the nuclear deal, it was just the latest in a long saga of tensions between the two countries. And often, when those tensions flare up, we call on Dutch journalist Thomas Erdbrink to get the view from Iran. He's the Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, and he's one of the few Western journalists living in Iran. I often leave our brief interviews with Thomas wanting to know more about him and his life there, and now we will get the chance. In a "Frontline" documentary series airing on PBS tonight and tomorrow, Thomas offers us a lively and intimate look at Iran and his own experiences there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUR MAN IN TEHRAN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

THOMAS ERDBRINK: And this is how a young man from a small town in the Dutch countryside learned to survive in Tehran.

GREENE: Now, Thomas does not shy away from criticizing Iran's leaders, but his focus is on the people he has gotten to know. Thomas Erdbrink spoke to us from Tehran. He began by remembering how surprised he was when he arrived in the country 17 years ago.

ERDBRINK: It was so different than I expected. People were so nice, and friendly and welcoming. And the death to America that is always propagated by the Iranian leaders, you just wouldn't come across it when you walk into the supermarket or when you - or you're waiting for your doctor's appointment. So I was intrigued by this place, and yeah, I never left.

GREENE: You didn't leave, and the government has never tried to force you to leave. Why do you think they have let you stay and report for an American news organization?

ERDBRINK: Yeah, I think that is a very valid question, and I don't really know the answer. Of course, we all know the story of my good friend and colleague Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post. He was imprisoned here for over 400 days. But I've never gone to prison. I've been arrested. They've taken my press credentials. Maybe they see me as a way to say things to the West. But at the same time, they don't like all my stories. And that's what I notice now.

GREENE: You have criticized some other journalists who parachute into Iran and tell the story of the country, quote, unquote, "behind the veil," as you put it, which I suppose - you're suggesting there might be a stereotype there that people just fall into. How is your work different, would you say?

ERDBRINK: Well, first, I wouldn't want to criticize them because in the end, it's the Iranian authorities that give them very few time to be in this country. But my work is different because I've spent 17 years here, and just like the Iranians, I ride the bus; I go to the bakery; I go to weddings; I go to funerals; I meet people; I speak Persian.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUR MAN IN TEHRAN")

ERDBRINK: Iranians are always happy to chat about whatever subject.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: I was immediately struck just by the joyous mood of a lot of the moments in your films. I mean, you approach many of your interviews with this happy-go-lucky, disarming, really just casual style, and people just seem so drawn to you. Was there a strategy there journalistically or is - are we just seeing how you are and how you live your life?

ERDBRINK: I guess this is how Iranians are. They are so welcoming. They're so open. And they have a great sense of humor, and that helps me to, for instance, approach this super-ideological (ph) fanatic who constantly shouts death to America at all the rallies, to go to his house and just say like, hey, man, what that all about, all this death to America?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUR MAN IN TEHRAN")

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ERDBRINK: Hamid-Reza Ahmadabadi is one of the hard-liners' most loyal supporters. And every Friday, he makes sure he's right there at the front, yelling close to the cameras. It earned him a nickname in Iran - Mr. Big Mouth.

GREENE: Here is a guy who welcomes you into his apartment, who, over the course of a couple years, you have seen him embrace parts of modernity - the Internet; his wife now has a driver's license. Why does he hate America so much?

ERDBRINK: When you really ask him, he doesn't know. He says, I'll say anything that our leaders tell me to say, and he feels that this is the way to confront the United States. But when I ask him, so if someone would tell you to stop saying death to America - he says, yeah, of course, I'll stop saying death to America.

GREENE: You've obviously made so many good friends during your time there. Your wife is Iranian. Do you feel like you can still be objective as a foreign correspondent telling the story of Iran?

ERDBRINK: I think that is a very good question. And if objectivity is measured by, do I see Iran exactly through a Western view? Then, no. But do I, in all my articles every day, try to show all sides of the stories and especially also in this documentary? Then, I think, yes.

GREENE: You spend a lot of time in the film focusing on women and, I mean, the religious laws in the country - that they have to always wear headscarves. What were you trying to tell us?

ERDBRINK: We followed a woman who went out to protest and took off her scarf on the street, which is an incredibly daring thing to do here because in the Iran, the Islamic veil is compulsory.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUR MAN IN TEHRAN")

ERDBRINK: Protesters dare to climb up to one of these power boxes without a headscarf. When this woman refuses to climb down, an officer steamrolls her.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling in foreign language).

ERDBRINK: She lands badly and breaks a leg.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

ERDBRINK: She was arrested and could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison.

GREENE: Do you see the country really moving quickly? I mean, we've seen some large protests, but if that's the case, is this all going to come to a head at some point?

ERDBRINK: The past 17 years, I've always been thinking that. But don't forget; Iranians had a revolution 40 years ago, and a lot of them are now very disappointed with the outcome. So - but they're also afraid to create a new one because then they also wouldn't know the outcome. What is absolutely clear right now is that the disillusionment is at superhigh levels, and people are very dissatisfied not only over the political situation, but also over the laws that many view as outdated. And I think in the series, you can feel that in all the interviews and all the people you meet, you will see how much this country has changed and is changing.

GREENE: Well, I'm going to end this on a slightly lighter note. I, for one, am not going to ask you if you and your wife are planning to have children because it seemed like everyone else in the film bothered the two of you about that.

ERDBRINK: (Laughter).

GREENE: So I'll leave that question aside.

(LAUGHTER)

ERDBRINK: Thank you. Thank you.

GREENE: One of the many moments that we really get to learn about the real Thomas Erdbrink. Thanks so much for talking to us. I know next time, we might have to talk about new sanctions or some kind of nuclear deal, but it was really a pleasure talking to you about Iranian people and your love for the country.

ERDBRINK: Thank you, David. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "FOREST SANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.