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In Iran, NPR sees anger and desperation. Its government tells us nothing is wrong

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly interviews the Foreign Minister of Iran, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in Tehran.
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly interviews the Foreign Minister of Iran, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in Tehran.

TEHRAN, Iran — Months after the death of Mahsa Amini, a deep-seated sense of anger and desperation persists in the streets of Tehran, even as the protests that rocked Iran have diminished.

The protests erupted after the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman — known to family as Jina — died in police custody in September, after being detained for allegedly wearing a headscarf improperly. What started as anger at her death quickly grew into a movement led by young Iranians, who took to the streets to air their wide-ranging grievances against Iran's rulers.

NPR heard those grievances in conversation with people on the streets of Tehran, who said life in Iran sometimes felt impossible. They described an economy in which basic needs like food and medicine are punishingly expensive, unemployment is rampant, and a restricted internet has left them feeling cut off from the world.

Some blamed U.S.-led sanctions, but many accused their own government of mismanagement and brutality.

Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in Tehran.
/ Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in Tehran.

According to human rights groups, the government killed hundreds of protestors in its response, and jailed 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 more have received death sentences. The United Nations 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, Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian — speaking through his interpreter — dismissed the impact of the protests, called the demonstrators "rioters," and said that "nothing important had happened."

The protests

Amir-Abdollahian denied reports that the government had arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of people. He said that everyone who had been detained in the protests "played a role in the riots on the streets" and said hundreds, not thousands, had been detained.

He brushed aside photographic evidence of protester injuries compiled by human rights activists. "We have seen the very same pictures," he said. "But the question is, who has, in fact, fired those shots: the police or the rioters?"

"Israeli and American armaments came through from some of our neighboring countries," he said, and were given to the "rioters." And he said that police who responded to the demonstrations were not allowed to carry firearms. However, human rights groups have documented security forces using guns against protesters and firing in crowded areas.

Amir-Abdollahian also criticized statements from U.S. officials in support of Iranian protesters. He called them interventionist, wrong and "tantamount to interference."

Freedom of expression

The foreign minister maintained that "people can freely voice their ideas" in Iran. Asked about Iranians who declined to speak to NPR, citing fear of authorities and pointing to CCTV cameras, he joked, "You could have interviewed them in a blind spot." Later he said that there are very few cameras on the streets in Iran, which contradicts the observations by NPR journalists in Tehran this week.

Asked about the more than 90 journalists that the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) said have been detained since the start of the protests, Amir-Abdollahian said "no journalist was detained during riots." He suggested that they may have been "re-labeled" as journalists after they were detained for some other offense.

In fact, a sampling of the names on CPJ's list quickly reveals journalists who worked for well-known outlets in Iran. They include Niloofar Hamedi of the Shargh Daily newspaper and Elahe Mohammadi of the state-run Hammihan Daily two of the journalists who helped break the story of Mahsa Amini's death.

The NPR team — Mary Louise Kelly (second from left), and (right) Fatma Tanis and Connor Donevan — prepare for the interview.
/ Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
The NPR team — Mary Louise Kelly (second from left), and (right) Fatma Tanis and Connor Donevan — prepare for the interview.

Nuclear deal

On the demise of the 2015 agreement that gave Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on Iran's nuclear program, the diplomat pointed to the U.S. pulling out of the deal. The Trump administration broke the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Iran then started 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 build several nuclear weapons. But Amir-Abdollahian said that did not mean Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb.

"In order to respond to wrong American behavior and within the framework of reciprocity, we leveled up our nuclear activities at home," he said. "However, when it comes to our beliefs and values, we do not pursue the making of a nuclear bomb."

The Biden administration wants to revive the nuclear deal. But negotiations have been at a standstill, and the deal's future hangs in the balance, with U.S. officials expressing low confidence in Iran's willingness to revive the agreement.

"There is confusion within the White House," said Amir-Abdollahian, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and mixed messaging. "If you want to return to the deal, why do you say 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, U.S. officials say that amid condemnations in the West over Iran's handling of the protests and as it supports Russia's invasion of Ukraine, this is not the time to revive the nuclear deal.

The foreign minister also discussed the negotiations over the release of Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American who was detained in 2015 and has been in Tehran's Evin prison. Namazi is one of at least three U.S. citizens currently held in Iran.

"We're ready to exchange prisoners," Amir-Abollahian said, adding that negotiations had been ongoing but that there were "technical steps that need to be taken by Americans." He did not elaborate on what those steps were.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Marjan Yazdi