Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for NPR
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian says he is telling Western diplomats that the protests in his country will not destabilize Iran.
Protests erupted across dozens of cities in Iran in recent days, triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody in mid-September. Tehran’s morality police — who roam the streets enforcing dress codes in line with the government’s view of Islam — detained Mahsa Amini earlier this month for allegedly violating dress rules. Her family has disputed this claim, but what is undisputed is that Amini died days after being taken into custody.
Her death struck a nerve, with protests spreading to dozens of Iranian cities and gaining world attention through social media despite severe limitations on the internet. Some marchers chanted “Death to the dictator,” a slogan against Iran’s clerical rule, and in other protests women removed or burned their headscarves, which have been mandatory for women since the 1979 revolution that imposed Islamic law in the country.
In an interview with Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep in New York City, Amirabdollahian acknowledged the tragedy of Amini’s death, but said such incidents happen around the world and downplayed the significance of the nationwide protests.
“I’m assuring them that there is not a big deal going on in Iran,” he said of his message to his Western counterparts. “There is not going to be regime change in Iran. Don’t play to the emotions of the Iranian people.”
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The foreign minister insisted that Amini’s death is being “seriously investigated,” and said Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi — who is among the senior officials promising a full investigation — had called Amini’s family. At the same time, Amirabdollahian cast many protests as a product of foreign media and outside agitation, though they appear to be widespread in his country.
Security officials have been trying to suppress the unrest, restricting internet access, beating, arresting, and in some cases killing protestors. But broader frustrations — ranging from a devastated economy to the alienation between Iran’s government and many younger citizens — have kept the demonstrations going.
Amirabdollahian is a veteran Iranian diplomat who has been involved with long-running negotiations over its nuclear program. The U.S. is seeking to rejoin an agreement with world powers that limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Those talks seemed near a conclusion this year but appear to have stalled.
One sticking point appears to be Iran’s desire for some assurance that any new arrangement would last beyond the Biden administration; President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement and a future president might do the same. NPR asked him about that, too.
“The American side has taken some steps toward giving us guarantees,” he said. “We just need these guarantees to become a little more complete.”
Below are some highlights of NPR’s questions and the foreign minister’s answers, which were delivered through his interpreter.
Do you believe the protesters have legitimate reasons for concern, for grievances?
“Iranian people are emotional people, and they have pure sentiments, and in the early hours after the incident, they protested peacefully, and now everybody is waiting for the judicial system’s inquiry to come to an end … But in the meantime, there have been some outside elements like satellite channels, some websites that have been encouraging people inside Iran to pour into the streets and to turn violent and this is why the demonstrations turned violent and into riots.”
As a past visitor to Iran, who’s interviewed hundreds of people in Iran, I have trouble believing that this is entirely stirred up from the outside. I have heard many people express frustration about the government and about the rules of the government. Do you not think that these protests come from the people or at least some of the people of Iran?
“There are protesters of course and they are expressing what they demand in a peaceful way. But now the most of these people in the streets are being led and guided by well organized channels.”
A United Nations official has accused Iran of using excessive force in some cases to suppress the protests. What do you say to that?
“You know, if it is peaceful, they can do it freely. There is not going to be any force used. But if they’re going to torch the ambulances or steal money from the banks, then the police have no choice but to react proportionately. What did you do when people tried to seize the Congress? Didn’t you block your president’s access to Twitter? Was it a democratic act, or was it for your national security reasons?”
I’ll just note that a private company knocked the former president off of Twitter, who was still able to speak through many other channels, any number of channels. He’s even been interviewed this year on NPR. He is still free to speak. But setting that aside, let’s talk about the internet, since you brought it up. Why has the internet been restricted in Iran in the last few days?
“We have an obligation to provide peace and tranquility for our people.”
The U.S. State Department has said that it will give priority to licensing those efforts that may promote internet freedom in Iran. Do you believe that you can, in the long term, keep control of the internet in Iran?
“If the United States really, really cares about the Iranian people it can pay attention to the fact that thousands of Iranian kids have died because of sanctions that it has imposed … Instead of worrying about people’s having access to free internet, worry about those people dying every day because of their sanctions.”
Let’s talk about the nuclear negotiations. I know this is an issue you’ve been personally involved with for many years. It was thought just a few weeks ago that the sides were very close to an agreement for the United States to rejoin the nuclear deal, but that something has happened that made it less likely. What has gone wrong?
“Overall we have had relatively successful and good talks … we have been involved in exchanging a great deal of messages with the American side. We have come a long way. So now where are we? At at a stage where there are just a couple of issues remaining on the table, but which are very significant and important.”
Is it essential from Iran’s point of view that the United States provide some kind of guarantee that it would never withdraw from the agreement again?
“The issue of guarantees is very important to us … I mean, the American side has taken some steps towards giving us guarantees. We just need these guarantees to become a little bit more complete.”
The audio interview was produced by Chad Campbell and Vince Pearson and edited by Larry Kaplow and Arezou Rezvani. Rachel Treisman adapted this story for the web.