Iran's foreign minister says hijab protests won't lead to regime change As protests intensify in Iran over the arrest and death in custody of a 22-year-old woman, the country's top diplomat promises an investigation into what happened but downplays the demonstrations.

The protests won't lead to regime change, Iran's foreign minister tells NPR

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The top diplomat of Iran says he's sending messages to his counterparts in the United States. Hossein Amirabdollahian says he's warning them not to get too excited about protests in dozens of Iranian cities.

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) I am assuring them that there is not a big deal going on in Iran. There's not going to be a regime change in Iran. And don't play to the emotions of the Iranian people.

INSKEEP: The foreign minister spoke with NPR as he visited New York. He's tall with a slight beard, a veteran diplomat. Amirabdollahian understands English perfectly but answers through his interpreter. We discussed the protests after a woman in Iran was arrested for wearing what authorities say was improper clothing. She died in police custody.

Do you believe the protesters have legitimate reasons for concern, for grievance?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Regarding the lady, Mahsa Amini, something happened to her that made us all very, very sad. Similar incidents happen all around the world, like tens of examples similar to that in the United States or in the U.K.

INSKEEP: He insisted Iran is seriously investigating. As for the protests, he did as Iranian officials often do and pointed to foreign influence.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) So Iranian people are emotional people, and they have pure sentiments. And the early hours after the incident, they protested peacefully, and it came 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 has - this is why the demonstrations turned violent and into riots.

INSKEEP: 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?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) To our protesters, of course - and they are expressing what they demand in a peaceful way. But now most of these people in the streets are being led and guided by well-organized channels.

INSKEEP: And while pointing to outside influence, the foreign minister defended the underlying policy.

Is it appropriate that people should be put in prison for the way that they dress?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Countries have their own rules and regulations, values.

INSKEEP: Although in Iran, the values are up for debate. In Iranian elections, voters often favor candidates who promise reform. But in the most recent presidential election, reform candidates were disqualified. And these latest protests have targeted the cleric who holds more power than any president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

INSKEEP: People at that demonstration were chanting "death to the dictator." The United Nations asserts that Iranian police have responded with excessive force, and activists say people have been killed. But the foreign minister defended the use of force in a way that Iranian spokesmen often do - by talking about the United States.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) You know, if it is peaceful, they can do it freely. There is not going to be any force used. But if they are going to torch the ambulances or steal money from the banks, then the police have no choice but to react. 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 did you want to for your national security reasons? You decided - it was decided by you that in order to have security - because the symbol of your democracy had been seized by the people.

INSKEEP: 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. 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?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) We have an obligation to provide peace and tranquility for our people.

INSKEEP: Yet the foreign minister downplayed the importance of the protests the government is trying to quell.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Again, my suggestion is to wait for the end of the - everything is under control in Iran. It is not really as much as a big deal as you think it is.

INSKEEP: 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?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) 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 on medicine.

INSKEEP: And he suggested the U.S. move was ill-timed.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Especially now that we are in the middle of our negotiations and exchanging messages. And this makes us trust the United States even less.

INSKEEP: The foreign minister was referring to nuclear negotiations. The U.S. is seeking to rejoin an agreement that would limit Iran's nuclear program. Recently, it seemed that negotiators were close to a deal, and then they drew apart as Iran requested changes to the text.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) But we don't know really if the American side is realistic enough to make the decision that is required to make. Does the United States have the - enough courage to make the difficult decision or not?

INSKEEP: Is it essential, from Iran's point of view, that the United States provides some kind of guarantee that it would never withdraw from the agreement again?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) The issue of guarantees is very important to us.

INSKEEP: Iran would like some assurance that the agreement would last beyond the Biden administration. The U.S. has been reluctant to promise what the next American president would do.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) 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.

INSKEEP: On the sidelines of these indirect talks, Iranians and Americans have discussed another issue - U.S. citizens held in Iranian jails. We asked the foreign minister if Iran would release at least one on humanitarian grounds. Hossein Amirabdollahian said that would be fine, but Iran wants to trade for prisoners held by the United States.

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) So if the U.S. is ready, we are ready without any delay. And immediately we will do that.

INSKEEP: The Biden administration talks roughly the same way about Iran. The U.S. has indicated it's ready to make deals when Iran is.

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