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Political Journalist For Tasnim News Agency In Iran On U.S. Relations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: All right. Let me bring you now here to Iran itself and specifically to the inner workings of the Tasnim newsroom here in Tehran. Tasnim is a right-wing news agency with close ties to Iran's powerful hard-line Revolutionary Guard force, or IRGC.



KELLY: Salaam. Hello.

The newsroom is quiet so far today - only a half dozen or so reporters at their desks. On one wall, as is typical in public spaces in Iran, hang the portraits of the country's two supreme leaders - Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. On another wall, a giant TV screen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the - Iran's official news channel.

KELLY: What's it's called?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Farsi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Farsi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's called Channel 6 or just the news channel.

KELLY: Channel 6 is airing snippets of American TV news. CNN pops up, then MSNBC. One reporter here tells us it's his job today to keep track of this - of what U.S. media is reporting about U.S.-Iran tensions.

Well, we've arranged to visit Tasnim on a parallel mission. We wondered how a conservative Iranian news outlet is covering the current tensions. So we sit down to chat over tea and cookies with Mahdi Bakhtiari. He edits Tasnim's political and military coverage. I asked him, what's his read on whether Iran's attacks are over - if revenge for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani has been achieved?

MAHDI BAKHTIARI: (Through interpreter) Well, we can say that in two different parts. If we want to say, will the military attacks of Iran continue or not - to a very, very large extent, that is related to America's reaction. But if we want to talk about the revenge of Soleimani's blood, that has not been done with such a small attack. We can't even compare the two. Even we've had people say that even taking down Trump himself will not be the revenge - a revenge for Soleimani's blood because the two figures are not comparable.

KELLY: What would count as enough revenge for the death of Soleimani? You said even taking out President Trump would not be enough. What would be enough?

BAKHTIARI: (Through interpreter) Well, you see, if a particular figure is assassinated or martyred in the way that we saw, it is very difficult to find a figure that will strike a balance with that figure. And we might not find somebody like that. So in this case, the payback will be to follow the goal that that martyr had in mind. And in this case, it's the complete exit of American forces out of the region.

KELLY: Iran's missile strikes on the military bases in Iraq - state TV here is reporting 80 Americans killed. And they're quoting Revolutionary Guards source - an IRGC source for that. The U.S. says no one was killed. Iraq says no one was killed. How do we understand this? How do you explain this?

BAKHTIARI: (Through interpreter) This is quite natural for them that they haven't declared the number of deaths. But what common sense would say, judging from the photos and what we have seen so far, well, we can guess that there have been a number of casualties and very large-scale destruction of the base.

KELLY: What exactly is Tasnim reporting today? You said, of course, there's uncertainty about numbers. But what exactly is Tasnim reporting on this? Are you reporting 80 Americans killed?

BAKHTIARI: (Through interpreter) Well, what the IRGC initially reported, we published that information regarding the 80 killed. We published that and said that it comes from a source. But we are still getting more information. We're getting different numbers. So we're not publishing that until we actually check on the reality of that. What I heard myself is that the number of the deaths have - ranged from 40 to 80. The number of injured range...

KELLY: Of Americans?

BAKHTIARI: ...Americans - go as high as 850. And the destruction can be clearly seen from the films and footage.

KELLY: Is it possible that your sources would like for the Iranian public to believe more revenge was taken - that Americans were killed when, in fact, they were not - because that would help the Iranian government in persuading Iranians that they have retaliated? Is it possible your sources have an agenda?

BAKHTIARI: (Through interpreter) Well, regarding my sources, they are foreign sources - Russians and the Arabs. But I have to mention that the figures are different. And regarding the issue of Iran trying to portray this as a full-out revenge and a complete revenge, I don't think Iran is interested in doing that. Their goal is to break down this aura of American bases that are untouchable, let's say.

And there was one way that we could get more accurate numbers and figures. It was that the U.S. would have allowed a journalist, both local journalist and international journalist, to go inside the base and have some reports. But they haven't allowed that. And this action by the U.S., it brings this idea to mind that something might have happened that they don't want to be known.

KELLY: That is Mahdi Bakhtiari, editor at the conservative news agency Tasnim, which has ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. And one note on our back-and-forth there over U.S. casualties - elsewhere on the program, I interview a spokesman for Iran's government who says Iran's plans never included inflicting American casualties. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.