When Washington Post columnist David Ignatius visited Iran in 2006, he was fascinated by the country's complications and contradictions. In some ways, it was the most interesting place he had ever been.
"The novelist in me, when I finished writing my columns from Iran, said, 'I have got to set a book here,'" he tells Steve Inskeep.
So he did exactly that. Ignatius' newest novel, The Increment, opens with a sweeping glimpse of the main street of Tehran, which, as he writes, descends from a mountainside and cuts through the metropolis like "icing dripping down the side of a coarse earthen bowl."
The Increment tells the story of an Iranian scientist who opposes his country's nuclear program and decides to send classified information to the CIA's Web site.
The information is picked up by a CIA agent who finds himself at odds with the information coming in. He believes that the CIA was used in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and he is determined not to let that happen again.
"My CIA hero, Harry Pappas, is a man who, like many real-life CIA officers is deeply troubled by what happened in Iraq, by the way in which the agency was used. ... He sees a rush to a war in Iran ... and something in him snaps," says Ignatius.
Pappas decides that to be faithful to himself, he has to betray the rule of his profession — not unlike the Iranian scientist who is sending him the secrets.
Ignatius says that in some ways, writing about Iran as a novelist was much easier than doing so as a journalist.
"As a novelist you can let go, you can imagine," he says. ""What if there was a person like this?' 'What if the person who received this information from Iran was deeply troubled, because he believed this information might be driving the U.S. toward war with Iran?'"
Stepping out of the novel, Ignatius notes that the pressure to do something about the Iranian nuclear program is likely to become even more pressing in the next year. He recommends that President Obama and his advisers approach the issue of Iran with a mixed mindset that combines the fact-finding of journalism with the creativity of novel-writing.
"I think often there has been too much limited and journalistic discussion, and people need to let their imaginations run," he says.
Ignatius says he's seen how open to outside contact people are in Iran. "It is a place that is really yearning to connect to our world."