Washington – When BBC Persian reporter Bahaman Kalbasi became the first Iranian-American reporter to be granted an interview with President Obama, he knew Iranians and Iranian Americans wanted answers to many tough questions.
“I felt a weight of responsibility,” Kalbasi later wrote, knowing that he had a rare opportunity to press the Commander in Chief directly on the possibility of war with Iran, the impact of sanctions on innocent Iranians, and the U.S. approach to Iran’s human rights situation.
Broadcast first in Persian, Kalbasi’s incisive interview would make the headlines around the world.
Kalbasi pointedly asked Obama about the perception that human rights may be sacrificed by the U.S. government in favor of a singular focus on the nuclear program. “In the streets of Tehran, there was the chanting: ‘Mr Obama, are you with us or are you against us?’ Are you with them, or are you against them?”
On the issue of military strikes, Kalbasi told the President that many Iranians “see similarities to the run-up to the Iraq War” and asked him, “What do you say to those who are worried that they’ll wake up to a military attack by America or Israel?”
The President responded that, “people should remember is that I don’t take war lightly,” and that he opposed the Iraq war and favors resolving issues diplomatically. But while he noted the multilateral efforts the U.S. was leading to press Iran, the President refused to “engage in hypotheticals” as to whether he would act to stop Israel if it decided to attack Iran.
Kalbasi also raised with the President evidence that sanctions are negatively impacting the lives of innocent Iranians, noting that sanctions “branded as crippling” are seen by many as a departure from the President’s earlier promise of diplomacy without threats. He asked Obama how he reconciled these contradictions and how this round of sanctions would be any different from the past, considering Iran “has lived through three decades of sanctions.”
“There was no clear vision as to how this policy is different from the past,” Kalbasi told NIAC. “Nor was there much of an answer as to what would happen next.”
But Kalbasi also told NIAC that, sitting face to face with Obama, it was his impression that the President is genuinely concerned about human rights. “I think, ideally, President Obama seems to be someone who tends to care about these issues, like human rights, and he would like to see a better day in US-Iran relations… I think he genuinely would like to see an opening here,” Kalbasi said.
Kalbasi believes the President chose to sit down with BBC Persian in order to reach as wide an audience in Iran as possible through an independent voice. “This was the longest interview a US president has given to a foreign television network,” he said. “Even though they were giving me the sign that my time was up, I didn’t pay attention and I just kept going.”
Kalbasi joined BBC Persian in August 2008 and was a reporter in Washington for two years covering the White House, State Department and Congress. He recently moved to New York to work as a correspondent responsible for covering developments in the United Nations and economic stories. Previously, he was a reporter for Canadian Broadcasting Cooperation TV and Radio on issues related to Iran and produced a documentary in Iran about life in the country that won the New York Festival’s World Medal in 2008.
Looking to the future, Kalbasi hopes to continue to address the issues of concern to Iranians and “be trusted to represent their questions when interviewing policymakers.” As the first Iranian-American to interview President Obama, Kalbasi demonstrated that, even when sitting across from the most powerful office holder in the world, he will not avoid pressing the toughest questions on the minds of his viewers.