Political scientist from MSSES — about the work of a correspondent in the Middle East

For decades, since the 1978 Islamic Revolution, Iran has remained the main political bogeyman of Western democracies in the Middle East. The only correspondent of the Russian news agency TASS in Iran, Nikita Smagin, a graduate of the "International Politics "program in MSSES, told why current Iran is more democratic than the monarchical one, and where the Russian samovar came from modern Iranian families.

The main thing that attracts and amazes me about Iran is that this country is too multi-layered-that's right, too. So many things that contradict each other, seem impossible, are combined here.

Iran is the first country in the world in terms of the number of Telegram users. Seventh - by the number of Instagram users: this is the same as in Russia, but the population of Russia is 2 times larger-a proportional difference. Most people use these apps to communicate, build relationships, and so on. I`m in the northern part of Tehran, rich and glamorous, where Islamic laws are not always strictly enforced. At the same time, 30 kilometers away from here there are already villages where people live according to the age-old traditional ways.

When they show pictures of Iranian girls in mini-skirts from the 1970s and compare them with the current girls in chadors, it's complete nonsense — I'm not trying to fight this stereotype anymore. Girls in mini-skirts were a small minority in the 1970s, and they most likely lived in Tehran. And most of the country didn`t live like this - it lived in an absolutely Islamic way. The story that there was a beautiful secular country, the Islamists came and plunged it into the Middle Ages is a simplification to the point of distortion.

Under the Shah, Iran was a rigid dictatorship -it was a one-party system with non-free media. And now we see a country with a complex, incomprehensible to many, but clearly not monolithic political system, where there are competitive elections - and you really don`t know who will become the next president, who will sit in parliament. With all the restrictions, which, of course, exist, Iran can hardly even be called a fully authoritarian state. There is no such unique system anywhere else.

Working as a political analyst

There are only a few specialists on Iran — even fewer good ones. Colleagues at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) said that when they need to write about Iran, it`s always a headache: it is very difficult to find Iranians, as if they were burned out on purpose. Not so many specialists, but people who deal with it at all: Iran is one of the most problematic areas for analytical centers.

There are Iranian cases can be commented by everyone, especially if they follow the situation as a whole. For example, the nuclear deal (between Iran and the EU countries led by the United States) is important because it is of international importance, and it isn`t necessary to be an expert on Iran to give adequate analysis on it. But as for the internal situation in the republic - and the external one, if we look at it more deeply- there are very few analysts, of course.

Surely there are countries where there are even fewer specialists. If we try to find them now, we'll find them. The question is different: over the past 15-20 years, Iran has become a country that very often appears in the news — and the trend is growing. It turns out that the direction that is not the most popular in terms of training specialists is very popular. Analytics are needed, but there are not enough people. Not to mention the fact that analysts, as a rule, don`t earn on their analysis: it`s most often a part-time job for them.

Unfulfilled Master's degree and media launch about Iran

I studied Arabic at RUDN, and after graduating from the university, I just couldn't find a job related to the language. At that time, the HSE planned to open a double master's degree program, in Russia and Jordan-a year here, a year there. But it was going to happen in a year — it was time to do something. I got a job in the online edition of the "Sobesednik" newspaper, but the program never opened.

I surely could go to another master's program, but I wanted to study and live abroad. I was depressed, I quit the "Sobesednik"- and at that moment a friend asked me to sit in the dacha with her cat while she was away. So we were sitting with the cat at the dacha for a week, there was nothing to do - I was surfing the Internet and accidentally came across an enrollment in the Persian language program at the Russian New University.

I called — I was taken on the spot, because there was a shortage, next I studied Persian for six months, then went to Iran for 2 months. In Iran, I greatly improved my language, and I was offered to work in the Cultural Representation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Moscow.

The only source of information about the culture and society of Iran in Russian at that time was the Facebook of the ambassador (previous and current). We looked at the semantics of search queries — people are googling, looking for information about Iran. That is, the niche was not occupied, and the then head of the cultural representation suggested thinking about own media. So we came up with the "Iran today" project, whose editor-in-chief I was the next 3 years.

At its peak, we had 3 people on staff, 4 external reviewers, and 100,000 unique visitors per month. The problem was that most of these visitors - about 60% - were not from Russia. The audience grew from the CIS countries: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan — Central Asia and the Caucasus. The explanation is simple: countries that either border Iran or are culturally close to it have an interest in Iran. They actually speak the same language in Tajikistan, for example.

And people in Russia are not interested in Iran. It's not that they treat it badly, rather, they are simply indifferent.

After a while they decided to freeze the project -and I left for TASSat this point.

Working in TASS

I am the only TASS correspondent in all of Iran. My task is primarily journalistic- writing news. The second task is doing interviews and other exclusive things: reports, videos.

The specifics of the work of an information specialist is that you must have a good understanding of what someone is saying. The news usually consists of 3-4 quotes from some speakers. But you have to understand the background, what it means, that's what's important. If you take, for example, the sensational nuclear deal, only it already has dozens of stories: you need to remember all of them and quickly react to what is happening at the moment — this is the main difficulty.

There is a special focus on Iran and I have never had a day when there was no news at all, and never a day when there was just one news item. Something is always happening. I comment on political events related to Iran for the Carnegie Moscow Center, RBC, Izvestia, and other media. And I'm preparing an analysis on Iran for the Russian Foreign Ministry's International Affairs Council. Plus, there is an internal TASS analysis, which goes not to the agency's website, but, let's say, for state use.

About the similarities and differences between Russia and Iran

In fact, there is not much in common between Russia and Iran, although we have a rich history of relations over the past 200 years. The countries are not so far from each other - we used to be border states for a significant part of the time. The main point of the rapprochement between us is politics. But despite the fact that due to the political rapprochement some claim that we are very similar, this is not so-socially, culturally, mentally we are far from each other.

In Russia, there is almost no interest in Iran, in its culture. When they talk about the East, they remember Turkey, Japan with the Kurils, maybe the Teheran Conference of 1943. But, probably, not everyone will realize that it took place in Iran.

But it`s vice versa in Iran: relations with Russia are an important story here. They remember that Russia took Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan from Iran, and the Soviet-British occupation during the Second World War. Iran is interested in Russia in various aspects — both positive and negative. For example, the most popular foreign writers in Iran are Russians: Radzinsky is sold at every turn, not to mention the classics, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky.

Moreover, there are things that came from Russia, have become traditional in Iran —they are no longer reproduced in Russia, but here they still exist! For example, the culture of tea drinking from a samovar, which migrated in the middle of the XIX century. In Iran, samovars are sold at every turn, they are used in families, in everyday life. For us, the samovar is already a folklore artifact.

How did studying in MSSES affects the professional approach?

In MSSES, I was given an idea of how world political science works. More importantly, I have changed my understanding of what fundamental, deep work with information sources is. For example, if earlier I tried to understand some topic in order to, say, write an analytical article, then first I googled, looked at the sites of journals such as Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, etc.

Now I start with Scopus or JSTOR-scientific journals banks. If a scientific article is written on the topic, this is an in-depth look. And what is in the journals should go as an addition to it.

Regional experts who deal with the Middle East are convinced that theory is nonsense: for analytics, you need practice, facts. And these theories were all invented by the West - they don't work in the Middle East (or in China, India). In MSSES, this is not the case at all: the theory provides a tool that not only works but also helps to understand what is happening in the region in general. Another thing is that the theory needs to be adapted because if it was created on European material, this is not always applicable in other geopolitical realities in its pure form.

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