In 'Iran,' Ted Koppel Explores the Nation Behind the Label

Ted Koppel outside a mosque in Iran, from which he reports for the Discovery Channel. Koppel appears to have been given unusual access while in Iran.
Ted Koppel outside a mosque in Iran, from which he reports for the Discovery Channel. Koppel appears to have been given unusual access while in Iran. (By Newsha Tavakolian -- Polaris Via Discovery Channel)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

No one erected a banner that said "Welcome Back, Ted," but there is a certain historical resonance in Ted Koppel's return to Iran for a new Discovery Channel documentary. That's because, of course, Koppel's nightly reports on the Iranian hostage crisis for ABC evolved into "Nightline" and made Koppel a household name, face and presence back in the days when a mere four networks ruled the airwaves.

Now a network expatriate, Koppel is able to do on cable what no broadcast network would likely permit: take two hours of airtime to examine a subject thoroughly and imaginatively -- exactly what he does in "Koppel on Discovery: Iran -- the Most Dangerous Nation," a surprisingly lively report airing tomorrow night at 9. Koppel spent three weeks traveling around Iran, and though shadowed by government flunkies everywhere he went, appears to have enjoyed unusual freedom and access.

The "most dangerous nation" tag was hung on Iran by George W. Bush in light of the Iranian government's apparent insistence on developing nuclear power and the possibility that doing so would lead to nuclear weaponry. But Koppel's report shows the country beset by so many internal problems and generational conflicts that building weapons of mass destruction might, by default, have a low priority -- and that's assuming the Iranians have the capability in the first place.

Koppel traces the history of U.S.-Iran relations, and it's anything but a happy little tale. Enmity toward the United States goes back at least to the 1950s when the CIA installed the shah of Iran for a 25-year regime known for fabulous parties here in Washington and human rights abuses back home. Koppel visits the crumbling remains of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized by shrieking mobs in 1979.

"This is a nation that relishes the role of underdog," Koppel says, "and cultivates the image of martyrdom." He even finds a spot in a public square where young men can sign up for what amounts to suicide training; the sign above a long table says "Martyrdom Seekers Registration."

Koppel says that 70 percent of the population is under 30, a new generation that, among other things, is trying to challenge the long-entrenched and fanatical suppression of women in Iranian society (they are required to ride in segregated subway cars, as one tiny sign of the pathology). Meanwhile, the country is run by old men with billowing beards, several of whom look like the Ayatollah Khomeini, a demagogue who helped foment hatred of the U.S. during his own notorious and tumultuous reign.

The report is first-rate and often fascinating, as when Koppel tracks down "Sister Mary," the woman who served as Iran's spokesperson during the hostage crisis. Feisty as ever, Koppel challenges her to defend the characterization of America as "the great Satan." But Sister Mary is feisty, too.

"Death to America" has now become an expression so common in the culture that it's practically the Iranian equivalent of "Have a nice day." It's always discouraging to see children being indoctrinated in the hatreds of their fathers, but sure enough, the report includes footage of sweet-faced young kids rhythmically raising fists as they repeat the "Death to America" chant. Anti-American posters are everywhere; one shows the Statue of Liberty with a hideous skull for a head, and another, less infuriating, says succinctly, "Bush = Hyena."

Koppel's on-camera presence is more Yoda-like than ever, both in appearance and in the aura of authority that he carries with him wherever he goes. He does actually meet an Iranian or two who likes America and a young man who sends greetings rather than a death threat to President Bush. But when he listens to a crowd of men chanting their evening prayers, he's dismayed to hear "Death to America" interpolated into even supposedly sacred rites.

Perhaps Koppel is a trifle too colloquial in his reporting style, saying of young aspiring martyrs, "These guys will die for their beliefs." If "these guys" is a little too informal, it hardly mars "Most Dangerous Nation," which was produced, as was the Koppel version of "Nightline," by the estimable Tom Bettag.

Meanwhile, another longtime and legendary anchor, one who also worked with Bettag during his network career, made his return to American television this week, though in a vehicle not as soundly assembled as Koppel's show. "Dan Rather Reports," helmed by the former anchor of the now-sinking "CBS Evening News," premiered Wednesday night on HDNet, one of media magnate Mark Cuban's high-definition networks.

Although the Rather hour contained some solid and absorbing journalism, the program lacked structure and cohesion and seemed chronically under-produced. Having Rather report all the stories himself, with no other journalists in sight, amounted to overexposure, and there were "cutaway" (reaction) shots of Rather in which he looked, justifiably, exhausted.

Still, it was good to see him on TV again -- if you could find him. Very suspiciously, the DirecTV satellite guide for that night's viewing did not list Rather's program at 8, when it aired. Instead, the grid said "Title Not Available," which very rarely happens. DirecTV is now controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., so it's hardly being paranoid to wonder if this "mistake" weren't made on purpose.

Years and years ago, when pugnacious personality Jack Paar attacked the Hearst newspapers on "The Tonight Show," Hearst retaliated by running the word "Commercials" in TV listings where "Tonight Show" or "Jack Paar" should have been. Perhaps TV hasn't changed as much as one would think -- or as much as it should have.

Koppel on Discovery: Iran -- the Most Dangerous Nation (two hours) airs tomorrow night at 9 on the Discovery Channel.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company