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Ted Koppel: Free to be afoot in Iran

Ted Koppel personalizes Iran in a new Discovery Channel special.

Toiling in his new vineyard of choice, Ted Koppel must be diplomatic about what he can do now but couldn't do then.

"If I were to say I feel liberated, that would make it sound as though I'm so glad to be out of the clutches of ABC News," Koppel says in a telephone interview. "I love ABC News. But the nature of the industry has changed. There absolutely is no way that you could get a two-hour documentary on Iran on ABC, NBC or CBS. It just ain't going to happen."

Instead it's happening on The Discovery Channel, where his consistently fascinating Iran -- The Most Dangerous Nation premieres Sunday night, Nov. 19 (8 central, 9 eastern). It's Koppel's second extended piece for his new employer, where he has the title of managing editor. On Sept. 10, he spent three hours on The Price of Security, which was followed by a live town hall meeting.

While much of the media go cuckoo over the "TomKat" wedding and other sugary junk food, Koppel continues to peddle serious, nutritive news of the sort that's immune to high ratings. It's fulfilling for him, though. In this case, he revisits the country that put him on the map in 1979 when Nightline was birthed amid the Iranian hostage crisis.

All these years later, as he notes Sunday night, the U.S. still defines Iran as part of the "axis of evil" while that country in turn indoctrinates its children to chant "Death to America" as part of their school curriculum. "Welcome to Tehran," Koppel says early in the special, while standing next to one of the city's plentiful ""Down with USA" signs.

He also shows the other side. Seventy percent of the country's population is under the age of 30, and a clear majority of these younger Iranians said in a recent poll that they want better relations with the U.S. The downside: an Iranian man who assisted the pollsters was jailed for two years. In an earlier life, he was the same man who organizing the seizing of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

"It's a nasty system over there," Koppel says in the telephone interview. "But the Iranians are a really interesting, cultured, sophisticated people. I think it's crazy that we don't have diplomatic relations with Iran. We have them with all kinds of scoundrels around the world.

"There are only three ways of influencing Iranian behavior," he adds. "Diplomacy, economic sanctions or military options. The sanctions haven't worked and a military operation almost certainly would be a fiasco. Basically that leaves diplomacy."

Koppel could not land an interview with Iran president Mahmoudd Ahmadinejad, whose pursuit of nuclear technology has the Bush adminisration on edge. Ahmadinejad also has no shortage of critics in his own country, the special shows.

One of them is "Sister Mary," who once served as spokeswoman for the hostage-takers. She's no fan of President Bush either, terming him "a very outspoken religious figure."

Koppel and his crew moved relatively freely through Iran but occasionally were squelched for what appeared to be no good reason.

"At times it's totally bizarre," he says. "There were rockets going off at one point, and our government minder couldn't have cared less that we filmed it. But then a security crew actually stopped our cameraman from shooting a sunset because we didn't have specific permission. They locked us down so thoroughly that I got very angry and insisted that something be done."

His mediator turned out to be a well-connected official known as "The Fat Guy." Koppel says he at first "seemed like a total buffoon" during a dinner the previous night. "But when 'The Fat Guy' took me under his wing, things started to happen. Figuring out who's in charge there can be a challenge."

Koppel's next special for Discovery will be titled The Long War, meaning Iraq. During his autumn years on Nightline, he joined U.S. troops on their march into Baghdad. This time, though, he'll report from afar.

"No, I don't think I'll be going back there," he says. "I've covered big wars and piddling wars. But I promised my wife that I won't go back to another one."

Knowing Koppel, though, don't hold him to that.