Ask journalists why they do the job they do, and you’ll hear a range of answers. Here’s mine: Not every day, but on the best ones, we get to put questions to powerful people and hold them to account. This is both a privilege and a responsibility.
January has been an interesting month on this front. I’ve had the opportunity to put questions, one on one, to the top diplomats of both the United States and Iran, in their respective capitals.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, spoke to me on Jan. 7 in Tehran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to me last Friday, in Washington. Each man represents a nation in conflict with the other; speaking with them, I wondered what path either could see out of the situation. In both cases, I was allotted 10 minutes for questions.
It turns out you can cover a lot of ground in 10 minutes. When Mr. Zarif sat down with me, on the sidelines of a big think tank conference focused on security in the Persian Gulf, it was just four days after an American drone strike had killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. We started there.
How might Iran retaliate for General Suleimani’s death? “The United States has committed a grave error,” Mr. Zarif told me. “And it will pay for that grave error.” I do not know whether, at that moment, he was aware that just hours later, Iran would unleash missiles on Iraqi military bases where American troops are housed.
We moved on to whether he would travel to New York later that week, to attend Security Council meetings at the United Nations.
“No,” he told me, “because Mike Pompeo decided I was too dangerous for the United States.” The United States had denied Mr. Zarif a visa, in what some have branded a violation of the 1947 United Nations headquarters agreement, which generally requires the United States to grant access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats.
Next I asked whether we were witnessing the death of the 2015 nuclear deal. Mr. Zarif insisted no — even as he acknowledged that Iran was suspending compliance with centrifuge limits.
The foreign minister and I ended with a tense exchange on what is an uncomfortable question for him: The status of United States citizens imprisoned in Iran, and whether future prisoner exchanges were off the table. “We had proposed a universal exchange of all prisoners and we were doing that in good faith,” Mr. Zarif said. But are those channels still open? No, he conceded, saying, “Those talks are certainly suspended now.”
My interview with Secretary Pompeo came two weeks and three days later, in the East Hall of the Treaty Room, on the seventh floor of the State Department. By then an uneasy pause had taken hold; the United States and Iran appeared, for the moment, to have stepped back from the brink of war.
I kicked off with a question on diplomacy. Is there any serious initiative underway to reopen diplomacy with Iran? “We’ve been engaged in deep diplomatic efforts since the first day of the Trump administration,” Mr. Pompeo replied, underlining American efforts to build a coalition to counter and contain Iran.
But in terms of American engagement with Iran, I went on, are there any plans for talks? “The diplomatic effort on this front has been vigorous, robust and enormously successful,” Mr. Pompeo said, changing the subject back to engaging American allies to put pressure on Iran.
Another question I was curious to hear Secretary Pompeo answer was how the Trump administration plans to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, should it decide to do so, given that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapons capability than when President Trump took office.
Here’s the relevant portion of the interview:
KELLY: How do you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?
POMPEO: We’ll stop them.
KELLY: How? Sanctions?
POMPEO: We’ll stop them.
He did not offer specifics. Nor did he elaborate, when pressed on how to square his resolve with what Mr. Zarif had just told me — that all limits on Iran’s centrifuge program have been suspended.
“Yeah,” Mr. Pompeo said. “He’s blustering.”
Do you have evidence that he’s blustering? He did not directly answer. (In fairness, I could hardly expect him to telegraph what intelligence the United States may possess on the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions.)
I write about all this now to refocus attention on the substance of the interviews, which has been overshadowed by Mr. Pompeo’s subsequently swearing at me, calling me a liar and challenging me to find Ukraine on an unmarked map.
For the record, I did. That’s not the point. The point is that recently the risk of miscalculation — of two old adversaries misreading each other and accidentally escalating into armed confrontation — has felt very real. It occurs to me that swapping insults through interviews with journalists such as me might, terrifyingly, be as close as the top diplomats of the United States and Iran came to communicating this month.
There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power — people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations — be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.
Journalists don’t sit down with senior government officials in the service of scoring political points. We do it in the service of asking tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens. And then sharing the answers — or lack thereof — with the world.
Mary Louise Kelly is co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and is a former NPR national security correspondent.
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