In show of openness, Iranian newspaper publishes interview with U.S. diplomat

September 30, 2013
The front page of Monday's Shargh, a prominent Iranian newspaper, features State Department spokesperson Alan Eyre. (Shargh)
The front page of Monday's Shargh, a prominent Iranian newspaper, features State Department spokesman Alan Eyre. (Shargh)

The U.S. State Department appointed Alan Eyre as its official Persian-language spokesman in 2011, hoping to reach out a bit more to regular Iranians. One hope was that Eyre would be able to do that by talking to official Iranian media.

While Eyre quickly earned a reputation for being animated, friendly and speaking excellent Persian, he's struggled to make it into official Iranian media. In July 2013, the hard-line Fars News Agency published an "exclusive" interview with Eyre, but then removed it almost immediately. It's not clear what happened, but Iran-watchers generally concluded that someone in the government had pressured Fars to take it down. The idea of allowing a sitting American diplomat to speak directly to Iranians was not acceptable.

So it was a surprise when, on Monday, the prominent, reformist-leaning newspaper Shargh published a full interview with Eyre – whose face also appears on the front page. Shargh and other reformist outlets have been highly supportive of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's diplomatic outreach to the United States, but they're still Iranian media outlets, working within the system. Publishing an interview with a State Department official is a big step, and yet another sign of the rapidly changing mood within Tehran, as the political establishment warms up to the idea of engaging with Americans.

Eyre didn't offer anything revolutionary in the interview, mostly just reiterating the U.S. position that it's open to talks and deal-making on the nuclear issue but that it wants to see Iran demonstrate its good faith. Still, it's widely perceived in Iran that the United States is committed to not just curbing Iran's nuclear development but to the outright destruction of the Islamic Republic political system, so it's not insignificant for the United States to be able to communicate its much more modest aims directly to the Iranian people.

Here, translated by the Post's Tehran bureau, is an excerpt from the interview:

Shargh: How can closer ties between Iran and the U.S. help to resolve the nuclear issue?

Alan Eyre: As Obama and Rouhani remarked, the opposite is correct, that it is solving the nuclear issue that can be an important solution to mending the relations between two countries.

Shargh: What is the U.S. view on the diplomatic approach of the new president?

Alan Eyre: Both the president and Secretary of State strongly believe that there is an opportunity for diplomacy and we hope that the Iranian government uses it. We welcome the change in tone, but as always we say there is a big difference between words and action.

Shargh: To what extent is the U.S. side ready to take trust building steps?

Alan Eyre: The U.S. and P5+1 are ready to answer Iran's trust-building actions with the same actions. Our suggestions in Almaty, which were not answered, had the same features and we hope that the new government gives a conceptual reply to it.

For those wondering: The "P5+1" is the group of six countries that officially negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, so-called because it consists of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the "P5") plus Germany. "Almaty" is a reference to the most recent P5+1 negotiations with Iran, in the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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Max Fisher · September 30, 2013