For more than two decades, when the West heard the words of Iran's presidents, more often than not, it was through the voice of Shirzad Bozorgmehr.
As CNN's primary journalist in Iran, he reported, produced, translated, and made possible the extraordinary access that distinguished the network's coverage of Iran during his tenure.
He was also literally the voice of his homeland: When CNN needed English-language translation for Iranians in the news—whether politicians or dissidents, clerics or vegetable sellers—his layered baritone carried the passion and the poetry of the original words.
Bozorgmehr passed away recently in Tehran at the age of 74.
The story of modern Iran has been one of convulsive political and social change. By contrast, the story of Iran's relations with the West has seemed constant, marked by a deep mutual suspicion. His colleagues and those closest to him remember a man who, in his life and work, navigated the intersection of these stories.
CNN's "indispensable rock"
The years following Iran's 1979 revolution, which marked the beginning of the Islamic Republic, coincided with the early days of CNN, which was then just a fledgling cable news broadcaster. Like other outlets, CNN faced restrictions on access.
During the first Gulf War, CNN grew in prominence as a leading source of unedited live coverage, and Christiane Amanpour began covering the politics of Iran. Working with Bozorgmehr in the 1990s, she gained exclusive entry to the Bushehr nuclear power plant and interviewed presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
"For as long as I can remember, Shirzad Bozorgmehr was the indispensable rock in our Iran coverage," said Amanpour, who is now CNN's Chief International Anchor.
But press freedom is severely restricted in Iran, and getting the story sometimes meant keeping Bozorgmehr in the dark.
"There were times I didn't tell Shirzad where I was going in order not to implicate him when I pushed the boundaries of our coverage," Amanpour said.
For a CNN documentary in 2000, "I didn't tell him about filming the secret parties where young men and unveiled women mixed, danced and drank the forbidden fermented grape! I got banned from working in Iran for 5 years, but Shirzad was able to keep up our coverage," she added.
Bozorgmehr, too, did things his own way. Battling through a scrum of journalists in Tehran, Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen remembers struggling to get a short interview with Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Making his way to the front, Pleitgen finally saw Zarif. And standing next to Zarif was Bozorgmehr, "calm and composed, glancing at me, glancing at Zarif, in charge of the situation," Pleitgen said.
"Zarif made a few remarks in Farsi and then immediately turned to our camera and answered our questions. Afterward, I was ecstatic and praised Shirzad for getting him for us. Shirzad just replied, 'Yeah, I had a chat with him,'" Pleitgen said.
The making of a journalist
As an elder statesman of the Tehran press corps, Bozorgmehr maintained extraordinary access to Iran's political elite. But those connections were formed when he was a much younger man, says Bozorgmehr's brother, Tirdad, who now lives in the United States. And those ties were nourished, in part, Tirdad said, by his father, a prominent Iranian intellectual.
A lawyer by training, Shirzad's father, Manouchehr Bozorgmehr, later taught philosophy at the University of Tehran and published a range of philosophical texts in translation, both in English and Farsi, before the revolution.
While their father was teaching philosophy in Tehran, in 1963, Shirzad and his brothers went to Birmingham, England to continue their studies. The years would prove formative in terms of Shirzad's sense of himself and his cultural touchstones, said his nephew, Bob Mehr.
"He went and saw the Rolling Stones play," Mehr said. "I think he really developed a lifelong passion for British Ealing comedies, and Indian food."
Shirzad later studied history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
While sweeping, systemic change was shaping revolutionary Iran, Bozorgmehr was mostly in California, where he would go on 20-mile runs in the Santa Monica Mountains. He finished his studies in 1981, and spent the better part of a decade working as a beat reporter covering finance and the petroleum industry for outlets in California.
For a side job as a private eye, he channeled his Humphrey Bogart fandom and love of old film noir into a stint as a real-life private eye, his nephew said.
In that role, he was occasionally given outlandish cover stories. "They would say he had worked as a bodyguard for the Shah, and that his hands were registered lethal weapons, so he didn't even need to carry a gun," Mehr said. "This was very funny, if you knew him. He was about the most gentle guy in the world
"Shirzad stayed in that dangerous situation"
In the early 1990s, Bozorgmehr returned to Iran, intending to work as a journalist and help care for his aging mother Nayereh, his brother said.
"Family was very important to Shirzad," said Parisa Khosravi, CNN's former Senior Vice President for International Newsgathering, and the person who recruited Bozorgmehr to join CNN. "He would always ask after our families and send his regards to our loved ones."
Within a few years, Bozorgmehr rose to Editor-in-Chief of the privately-run English-language newspaper Iran News.
By the late 1990s, he joined CNN full-time, and became a mentor to the various CNN journalists who cycled through Iran for breaking news coverage.
In 2008, Reza Sayah, a former CNN correspondent, was sent to Tehran to report for the network. It was Sayah's first time in Iran since childhood. "On that first assignment, (Bozorgmehr) treated me like family," Sayah said.
After the 2009 presidential election, Iran dominated international headlines for weeks as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a second term. The outcome sparked widespread accusations of fraud, massive protests, and flashpoints of violence.
Bozorgmehr held citizenship in both the United States and Iran. But when he worked in Iran, his Iranian passport was the one that counted. During this period in particular, it meant that he was not subject to the whims of the visa application and renewal process that was used to keep many foreign journalists away.
"Eventually we were thrown out of the country, and I was banned again." Amanpour said. But Bozorgmehr was able to stay. And as CNN created new ways of vetting videos and information shared via social media, Bozorgmehr became the network's eyes and ears in Tehran, Khosravi said.
"Shirzad stayed in that dangerous situation, to keep CNN's coverage alive," Amanpour said. Dozens of journalists were arrested in Iran during that period, and news outlets were shut down, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I can only imagine the interventions Shirzad had to make with the authorities to keep us on the air," Amanpour said.
"Shirzad was a journalist and a patriot. He was also clear-eyed about his troubled homeland," she said.
In 2009, Bozorgmehr was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Though the condition progressed slowly, his family worried about his health, and urged him to return to the United States to be closer to them.
Bozorgmehr came back for periodic visits, but never for more than a few weeks at a time. His brother said, "He would say, 'Over there, I'm doing something that I'm proud of. As long as I can do it, I'll do it.'"
"And sure enough, he did it until the very last day," he said.
With his passing, the many who loved Bozorgmehr mourn the loss of a man who helped the world understand Iran, and who bridged vast cultural gaps with knowledge, integrity, and wit.
"In his private thoughts, I think he was, like most of us, torn between Iran and the US, and what is right and what is wrong, and who is doing the wrong thing at what time, and who can be justified in their actions," Bozorgmehr's brother said.
"We were straddling two worlds," Tirdad Borzorgmehr said. "We are Iranian, and yet we're American, and sometimes that creates conflict."
In Bozorgmehr, those dual perspectives enriched a whole generation of reporting from Iran.