Will Pompeo be the first US secretary of state to appear live on Iranian TV?

Following the US secretary of state offering Iran’s state TV to interview him, various analysts and officials reacted to the proposal with an outspoken prime minister urging state TV to go ahead and challenge Pompeo live on air.

al-monitor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a a joint news conference with President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele at the Presidential House in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 21, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Jose Cabezas.

Jul 29, 2019

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s offer for an interview with Iran’s state TV has been met with positive reaction of a number of Iranian officials, who see this as an opportunity to challenge Pompeo.

While limiting Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s movements in New York, Pompeo told The Washington Post he would accept any offer to go on Iranian television and address Iranians to say “we care deeply about them — that we’re supportive of the Iranian people, that we understand that the revolutionary theocracy is not acting in a way that is in their best interest.”

In reaction, Iran’s senior moderate and outspoken parliament member Ali Motahari welcomed Pompeo’s offer, saying on July 16 that it could be “useful.”

Motahari then urged Iran's state TV, which is managed by hard-liners and not the government, to accept what Pompeo has proposed. “In my opinion, this is a good opportunity, but the interview shouldn't be one-sided in which Pompeo [only] speaks. The interviewer must bring up issues skillfully in a way that would [prove] US [lack] of logic," said Motahari in an interview with a local media.

Meanwhile, some others in Iran believe instead of an interview, a live debate between Zarif and his American counterpart should be held. Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian diplomat, told Al-Monitor, “A debate between Zarif and Pompeo is better than an interview, and Iranian people can watch it live on TV. The important point is that the United States should have honesty, and there should be a willingness by both sides for conversation.”

However, it seems that conservatives aren't willing to see Pompeo on Iranian TV as they say he may have “ominous intentions.” In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar, a cleric and Friday prayer leader of Isfahan, said. “What does he want to say in the interview? They have trampled all the international agreements and insulted the Iranian nation. Therefore, I think such an interview is neither in the interest of Iran nor is useful.” He added, “They have deceptive plans, and their intention is for sure ominous. All their movements are based on hypocrisy and acting, and the state TV shouldn't embrace this offer by Pompeo. Although, if the United States returns to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], that would be a step toward detente. Then a chance of conversation would come to exist.”

Nevertheless, Iran's state TV appears to be not fully against an interview with Pompeo, indicating their inclination indirectly while saying he would reject it. Hassan Abedini, a senior official of state TV, told local media on July 17 they have repeatedly asked for interviews from foreign officials, but the officials have mostly refused as they “don’t have any logical and convincing remarks to say.”

“The American and European officials can't offer any convincing answers to Iran’s public. Hence, they aren't willing to be interviewed [by us],” noted Abedini. He also took a swipe at Pompeo, saying 16 American papers and media are active in Iran, while at the same time Iran’s only state TV reporter in the United Nations isn't allowed to go “5 kilometers” from the UN headquarters in New York City.

In the meantime, a number of analysts in Iran maintain that Pompeo may have some other behind-the-curtain goals such as normalizing US officials' trips to Tehran.

“The US secretary of state is [not very concerned] about the interview; instead, he is emphasizing the [issue] of the location of the interview. Like Zarif’s efforts in New York, he also [wants] to travel to Tehran and take advantage of the media potential [in Iran] in order to open a new chapter for [US officials to go easily] to Tehran,” stated foreign policy expert Amir-Ali Abolfath July 16.

The Reform-minded foreign policy expert then brought up this issue that Pompeo possibly seeks to “stage political and diplomatic theater” by doing the interview with Iran’s state TV. Abolfath, however, argued that Pompeo's remarks reveal that the “media diplomacy” of Zarif in the United States has been “effective” during the “current sensitive situation in which the Tehran-Washington rivalry is reaching its peak, and using any tool for defeating the other side is significant."

Meanwhile, it is believed that reaching out to the Iranian people directly and improving the image of US President Donald Trump’s administration among the public in Tehran are also considered to be among the reasons for Pompeo's giving an interview to Iran’s state TV. In this vein, Tajik, the ex-diplomat, told Al-Monitor that “Pompeo’s offer is part of a bigger scenario, and that is persuading Iranians to revolt against the Islamic Republic — a policy that is being pursued by the [Trump] administration. However, if such a TV interview is aimed at resolving problems between the two countries, we would welcome it. But currently, I don’t believe the Trump administration seeks to resolve the disputes, as they are only pursuing the policy of pressure.”

Nonetheless, whatever US intentions are, If Iran’s state TV breaks the taboo of interviewing high-ranking US officials, it would pave the way for private newspapers and online news sites in Iran to dare to interview US government officials. One should wait to see if the state TV asks for an interview and, in such a case, whether Pompeo would say yes to the offer.

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