Easter in Iran

E-mail Amy Kellogg

A lot of people spend Easter Sunday hunting for eggs — I spent mine pulling together headscarves and cash to travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When we were offered the sudden chance to visit the eye of the international nuclear storm — the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz in central Iran — there were no questions asked about going.

Since Americans have no access to money in Iran due to incredible sanctions, and since credit cards don't exist, you have always to do a creative calculation about how much you might need before setting off on your journey. It being Easter, and banks being closed, I just hoped that I could get enough to cover myself.

My cameraman Andrew Psarianos and I met at Heathrow for the night flight to Tehran, which always completely knocks you out — much like the LA-New York red eye. It's never enough time to sleep (if you can sleep), and you end up wasting more time trying to doze, then actually sleeping.

We landed in Iran at 6 a.m. with great trepidation — we were promised visas upon arrival, something I had never done before. This is something that very rarely happens to journalists in Iran. We knew we needed to get through the airport quickly, so we could make it to Natanz in time to catch President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "nuclear news." Iran had been teasing it for some time.

My trusted Iranian translator met us and worked the early morning staff at Mehrabad International Airport to get us through, using his classic combination of charm and pushiness — we passed our 10 cases of gear through X-ray machines and we were off, heading south for the four-hour drive to Natanz. We cracked open the windows to keep awake. Andrew pulled out the stash of Red Bulls he'd smuggled in from Heathrow. We bumped along the road at a high speed, drinking the hyper-caffeinated beverage, watching the developed bustling crowded metropolis of Tehran melt into a brown, almost lunar landscape that goes on and on.

It was Andrew's first trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran, so he was looking forward to any number of impressions — not least of which, what the food would be like. Iran's much-celebrated recipes are a subject of pride for the Persians. But halfway through our trip we settled for a rest stop at a fast-food joint that looks like McDonald's. We had chicken sandwiches, fries and a coke for breakfast.

Onward we went: Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, a middleman organization that deals with journalists, had organized the trip. The group of journalists — mostly Iranian but with a few Europeans, Japanese and Middle Easterners thrown in — were traveling by bus. We were the only Americans, and in our own little van. We weren't being ostracized — it's just that our flight landed after everyone else's and they set out on the journey before we were out of the airport.

There were plans to take everyone to a charming, historic village, and a lunch before the Natanz event. I told my translator that I wanted to skip all the diversions and just get to the enrichment facility. Even if we had to wait around, at least we would be there, and maybe get our camera in a good place before the crowds arrived. Mostly, we could assess the situation — and who knew what we might see!

And then suddenly, we see it, right off the main north-south highway. Anti-aircraft guns, blending into the brown dusty landscape … of course there is no great sign. But you know you've reached Natanz, when you approach.

We passed guards and wound our way into the complex. A group of journalists, like us, had decided to skip the late morning of tourism and get organized. But we couldn't shoot any video, and just had to wait in a reception area.

Though we'd been promised a chance to shoot some parts of the plant, it soon became clear that that wasn't going to happen. Not that it really mattered all that much — they would hardly have shown us any of the good stuff-the centrifuges deep underground.

But I expressed a bit of dismay to an Iranian correspodent I know that we'd not even get some banal photo ops. He said, "Amy, what does it matter. You are an American at Natanz. That's something in and of itself. Think about it."

We waited and waited and waited. Three hours. It seems that security wanted to wait for the buses of other journalists in order to check us in, and herd us all into the auditorium, where Ahmadinejad was to make his speech. In the end, the others toured around, had a nice lunch, while we waited tirelessly. Then, with less than an hour to go before the big announcement, security had a bit of a meltdown when a pack of pushy journalists all tried to get into the conference hall at once.

Natanz security took one group in to inspect all the cameras and bags, and put the rest of us in a bus and drove us round and round the compound — kind of like trying to rock a baby to sleep. But, instead cameramen leapt from their seats to shoot video of the plant from the bus — the towers, the buildings, the guards. Everyone was starting to panic that the shaky bus shots would be the only material we would bring home. People became more and more agitated and frantic. With 15 minutes to go before the president's speech, and none of us having gone through security, we thought we'd never make it into that speech.

Suddenly, it was like a small riot broke out — we were all let off the bus. No one had even given us credentials yet, but a human wave just starting pushing through the metal detectors, pushing, shoving, briefcases, tripods, cameras, people, in a country where there is to be no physical contact between unrelated members of different sexes. Here, under the watch of the guards of Iran's most controversial nuclear facility, and no doubt the Revolutionary Guards, was a frenetic game of co-ed twister.

Some cameramen ended up inside separated from their tripods, some reporters separated from their translators, but somehow in the end everyone found each other and their possessions that had gotten misplaced in the crush.

The stage was decked out with elaborate floral arrangements, the flag of Iran, butterflies, the atomic symbol. I knew we were in for a show.

It was later explained to me that since the "masses" in Iran come from rural place, the nature symbolism was meant for them.

The rest of what happened, I’m sure you now know — the music, the speeches and the announcement that followed. It seems that this pageantry will be an annual event. Last year, the big announcement of uranium enrichment was complete with dancers.

Don't know if I'll be up to next year's to-do. I may just watch it on TV. But, I will say that being in a place that generates so much attention, that is at the center of a major international controversy, that is shrouded in much mystery, at a historic moment, is well worth the trek and the trouble.

And sometimes the whole process of getting to such an event is as eye-opening and interesting as the event itself.

Amy Kellogg is a London-based correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). She joined FNC in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. You can read her complete bio here.

Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox