The view from Teheran: a talk with CBS News' Tom Fenton
Exotic Iran -- and the hostage problem -- is only a dialed phone call away. It is 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning. I dial a number preceded by area code 9821 and in moments I am talking with Tom Fenton in his Intercontinental Hotel room in Tehran . . . at $9.45 per three minutes.
Three a.m. New York time may seem like a strange hour to chat about the current situation in Iran, even with the CBS News correspondent there -- one of the three or four major newsmen allowed to report directly from that city. But it is 11:30 a.m. in Tehran and Tom Fenton, who is also CBS TV New's senior European correspondent, earlier (9 a.m. Tehran time) had to attend a news conference held by Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament. So I had gritted my teeth and set my alarm clock for 3 a.m.
Now Tom is telling me that Rafsanjani expressed indignation at the fact that President-elect Ronald Reagan had called the Iranians "barbarians."
"That's a bit ironic," reports correspondent Fenton who has been in Iran for three weeks this time, and who previously had covered Tehran while the Shah was in power. Now he is making plans to leave the next day because his work visa has not been renewed.
"When you consider that they call Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan -- and all Americans for that matter -- every day, 'barbarian' is a very mild word. It seems to be part of their tradition to call us mad dogs, the greater Satan, Zionist-imperialist pigs, etc."
Mr. Fenton adds an ironic note: "We are called the greater Satan, Russia is called the lesser Satan, and now they are beginning to refer to France as the adolescent Satan. I bet the French aren't satisfied with that. . . ."
How freely can tom Fenton talk? Isn't there censorship?
"Well, they are probably monitoring this call. And thye keep track of what I do, where I go, who I see. But, in general I am surprised at the lack of censorship in many respects. They may raise eyebrows and even object, but they stop us oly in the area of the military. I honestly don't know whether this is due to policy or incompetence. But Is suspect the latter."
Isn't Tom nervous about speaking so openly?
He laughs. "They've already lifted my visa. But, I tell you, I won't feel really safe until I am on a plane headed for London and the USA. I have the same feeling of potential oppression that I had during my coverage of the last days of the Shah. Things are worse than in the old days of the Savak because now there is no single authority -- every revolutionary committee is a law unto itself.
"Our producer, Arden Ostrander, takes all the heat -- he is the whipping boy. The complain to him. I pay no attention, because if I censor myself there is no point in being here.
"I have no idea why CBS was allowed in three weeks ago or why my visa has not been renewed. There's a rumor that they want to try ABC next. I think they hope for more sympathetic coverage. When I first arrived I was told that if they like what I did, I could stay. That really got my hackles up."
Mr. Fenton comments wryly on the fact that it is only in Iran that he feels the supposed American strength. "If there is an earthquake, an invasion by Iraq , any catastrophe, it is somehow attributed to the all-powerful USA. It gives you a great feeling of strength . . . in a ridiculous way."
Is he bothered in the streets of the city by people who recognize the CBS cameras?
"It varies. Sometimes when they accuse me of being a spy for the CIA, I joke and say, 'Oh, no, I work for the Zionist-Imperialist press.' But we are not physically harassed. There are lots of political demonstrations now where portraits of Khomeini are torn up or burned. But we are not allowed to transmit tapes of that. Internal clashes are growing as is a strong anticlerical feeling. But the demonstrations at the embassy are over with."
Mr. Fenton also explains that although Ayatollah Khomeni is alleged to be very ill, they are not permitted to report on his condition. "He is the glue which holds this nation together now . . . as loose as it is. Without him, I fear it would fall apart completely."
Mr. Fenton is reluctant to voice his own opinion of the hostage crisis because he prefers to report only what he sees. But what creeps into his conversation is that he feels a definite shift in the wind toward release of the hostages as well as toward the journalists in Tehran.
"They have used us and now they are tired of us . . . and wish we would g away. But everything suffers from the sam trouble which influences their national politics -- indecisiveness. They speak with so many voices. And which can you believe?
"Right now the bazaar coffee-merchant mentality seems to be in command. They want to bargain for the hostages.In reality, they desperately want to rid themselves of the problem, but they continually box themseles in with one side or another making public demands from which they cannot withdraw without losing face.
"The decisions are based more on internal political infighting that on what the USA actually says or does. The moderate Bani-SAdr people favor openness and a settlement quickly, but the Moslem hard-liners remain very suspicious. It is inconceivable to them that an American President cannot just make a commitment to deliver $24 billion on his own.
"Most of the leaders are far from being towering intellects. A political jailing during the rein of the Shah is the greatest qualification for political office you can submit.
"They know that this is the time to solve the problem . . . but they just don't know how to go about it. Even when a government official makes still another proposals, the newspapers don't report it. The government speaks with so many voices. . . .
"They saw the recent US election as a deadline and wanted to solve the hostage problem before then. But they were just incompetent in handling it . . . as in everything else."
Where are the hostages now? Did the Christmas videotapes reveal anything?
"I don't know where they are and I don't want to know. They would just call me a CIA agent if I found out.
"But I do feel that the room pictured was not typical. In fact, I have heard that many of the hostages themselves put back on their blindfolds after the taping.
"One of the Irani technicians there was hard to remark sadly: 'Why they behave like trained animals. . . .'
"Those hostages have been surrounded by uncertainties and a lack of information. The first real information, I gather, has come from the Algerians."
"Can you imagine what the Russians would have done last week if the demonstrators at the Russian Embassy had taken it over. As it is, the Iranian guards allowed the demonstrators to burn the USSR flag but pushed them out of the compound. It was a carefully controlled demonstration. The Iranians know just how far they can go with the Russians."
As he prepares to leave Iran -- still a bit worried about getting through the self-appointed airport authorities -- Tom Fenton has no regrets about returning home at this time.