Marjan Yazdi for NPR
TEHRAN, Iran – Months after the death of Mahsa Amini, a deep sense of anger and despair lingers on the streets of Tehran, even as the protests that rocked Iran have waned.
The protests erupted after the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman – known to the family as Jina – died in police custody in September, after being arrested for allegedly wearing a headscarf inappropriately. What started as anger over his death quickly turned into a movement led by young Iranians, who took to the streets to air their far-reaching grievances against Iran’s rulers.
NPR heard these grievances in conversations with people on the streets of Tehran, who said life in Iran sometimes seemed impossible. They described an economy in which basic necessities like food and medicine are extremely expensive, unemployment is rampant and a restricted internet has left them feeling cut off from the world.
Some blamed the US-led sanctions, but many accused their own government of mismanagement and brutality.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
According to human rights groups, the government killed hundreds of protesters in its response and imprisoned thousands. In December, the government began executing people involved in the protests on charges ranging from assault to murder.
Four people have been put to death so far and at least 14 others have been sentenced to death. The UN high commissioner for human rights said last month that the executions violated due process and amounted to “state-sanctioned killings”.
In an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian – speaking through his interpreter – dismissed the impact of the protests, called protesters “rioters”. and said “nothing significant happened”.
Amir-Abdollahian denied reports that the government had arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of people. He said everyone who had been detained during the protests “played a role in rioting in the streets” and said hundreds, not thousands, had been arrested.
He dismissed photographic evidence of protesters’ injuries compiled by human rights activists. “We saw the same images,” he said. “But the question is, who actually fired those shots: the police or the rioters?”
“Israeli and American armaments arrived from some of our neighboring countries,” he said, and were given to the “rioters.” And he said the police who responded to the protests were not allowed to carry firearms. However, human rights groups have documented security forces using firearms against protesters and firing into crowded areas.
Amir-Abdollahian also criticized statements by US officials in support of Iranian protesters. He called them interventionist, errors and “equivalents of interference”.
Freedom of expression
The foreign minister said that “people can freely express their ideas” in Iran. Asked about Iranians who refused to speak to NPR, citing fear of authorities and pointing to CCTV cameras, he joked, “You could have interviewed them from a blind spot.” Later, he said there were very few cameras on the streets in Iran, which contradicted observations by NPR reporters in Tehran this week.
Asked about the more than 90 journalists who the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says have been detained since the protests began, Amir-Abdollahian said “no journalists have been detained during the riots.” He suggested they may have been “relabeled” as journalists after being detained for another offence.
In fact, a sampling of the names on CPJ’s list quickly reveals journalists who have worked for well-known outlets in Iran. Among them, Niloofar Hamedi from Daily Shargh newspaper and Elahe Mohammadi of the state corporation Daily Hammihan — two of the journalists who helped publicize the story of Mahsa Amini’s death.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
At the end of the 2015 deal that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program, the diplomat pointed out that the United States was pulling out of the deal. The Trump administration broke the deal in 2018 and reimposed the sanctions. Iran then began breaking the agreement’s limits on nuclear activity.
According to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, it has now amassed enough highly enriched uranium to make several nuclear weapons. But Amir-Abdollahian said that did not mean Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb.
“In response to American misbehavior and within the framework of reciprocity, we have increased our nuclear activities at home,” he said. “However, as far as our beliefs and values are concerned, we are not continuing to build a nuclear bomb.”
The Biden administration wants to revive the nuclear deal. But negotiations have stalled and the deal’s future hangs in the balance, with US officials expressing low confidence in Iran’s willingness to revive the deal.
“There is confusion within the White House,” Amir-Abdollahian said, accusing the United States of hypocrisy and mixed messaging. “If you want to get back to the case, why are you saying one thing to the media and the other through our diplomatic exchanges?”
He expressed Iran’s desire to return to the deal, but added that “the window of opportunity will not be open forever”. Meanwhile, US officials say amid West condemnation of Iran’s handling of protests and support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now is not the time to revive the nuclear deal.
The foreign minister also spoke about the negotiations for the release of Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American detained in 2015 and held in Evin prison in Tehran. Namazi is one of at least three US citizens currently detained in Iran.
“We are ready to exchange prisoners,” Amir-Abollahian said, adding that negotiations were underway but there were “technical steps that need to be taken by the Americans.” He did not specify what those steps were.