Iran's parliamentary election this month may not have provided the political earthquake that attracts blanket coverage on the cable news networks, but it did provide several dozen Western correspondents with an increasingly rare window into a country that is much discussed, but poorly understood.
Western pundits and politicians' obsession with Iran's nuclear program and the fading domestic opposition movement has blinded them to some of the most telling signs of shifting attitudes inside Iran. Had they been looking closely, what they might have seen is a proud nation painfully aware of its international isolation, but unwilling to back down in its increasingly dangerous game of chicken with the West.
Of course, most of the journalists who made the long trip to Tehran spent much of their time jumping through hoops. Two days before the election, for example, visiting reporters and representatives of the foreign media were invited to visit Iran's fledgling space program. A trip to the Alborz Space Center, an industrial suburb an hour's drive outside of Tehran, was not why most of these reporters had come -- but passing up the invitation did not seem to be an option.
As the project manager began to describe the successes of Iran's Navid satellite, a domestically produced observer satellite put into orbit last month, there was one problem: No official translator was present. There was supposed to be one, the scientist told us, but he hadn't shown up yet.
After a bit of jostling, one of the English-speaking fixers for a visiting North American reporter made his way to the podium. "I am not a member of Iran's space program, so please do not put that in your reports," he announced. "That would be wrong information that could get me in a lot of trouble with the CIA. I really don't want to be the next Iranian scientist to be assassinated."
After a brief and awkward pause, and once the ensuing laughter had died down, the project manager answered several questions.
"Was this a joint effort with other countries?"
"We asked all other nations with space programs if they'd like to work with us, and none accepted, so we did it ourselves."
"Does this satellite have any military uses?"
"No, as I told you, it's designed to gather weather and other environmental information."
That seemed a little harder for reporters to believe, but, given the high premium Iranians put on scientific advancement, it should come as no surprise.
In the 20-minute press conference, Iran's growing cynicism and pride in its accomplishments were equally on display. Those points were re-enforced later that evening, at a press conference with Iran's dry but no-nonsense Interior Minister Mostafa-Mohammad Najjar.
Several foreign journalists boldly pointed out that "reformist" and "Green Movement" candidates were missing from the ballots. Not missing a beat, the minister responded that those people, "based on their behavior, had separated themselves from the nation." This election represented a national festival for Iranians, celebrating the "season of harvesting truth from the tree of religious democracy."
If that message wasn't clear, it became even more so the next morning. Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaie, at a press conference, described the prospect of allowing independent international monitors to oversee the election as "insulting to the common sense of Iranian people." That sort of assistance, he said, was only needed "by countries and people who don't own their own destiny" -- unlike Iranians have for the past 33 years. Instead, he offered the Guardian Council's services to any country that needed help overseeing its elections.