- Reza Sayahfreelance journalist based in Tehran, who covered Iran for CNN International for over seven years.
- Trita Parsifounder and president of the National Iranian American Council.
As anti-government demonstrations enter their second week in Iran and spread to several key cities, President Donald Trump tweeted it’s ”TIME FOR CHANGE!” and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for an emergency meeting to discuss the developments. “Despite the attention that these anti-government protesters have gotten over the past week, there was no indication … that this was a repeat of 2009. … This was not a mass uprising,” says Tehran-based reporter Reza Sayah. We also speak with Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, who notes a new budget deal in Iran’s parliament that would cut government payments to the poor and raise fuel prices 50 percent was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” prior to the protests.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Iran, where anti-government demonstrations have continued for a sixth day. At least 20 people have been killed in the clashes so far, the largest protests in the country since 2009. On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the country’s enemies of fomenting unrest.
AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: [translated] The enemy is poised for an opportunity, a breach to penetrate through. Look at the incidents in the past few days! All those who are against the Islamic Republic of Iran, those with cash, politics, weapons and intelligence apparatus, join hands so they may be able to create troubles for Iran, for the Islamic Republic.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments came after the U.S. voiced support for the protests, which began last week by opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and have since spread to other cities, including the capital, Tehran. Protesters say they’re concerned about the country’s high unemployment and rising housing costs. The Iranian regime has reportedly blocked some encrypted messaging apps in an effort to prevent protesters from communicating securely. During a press conference on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the United States stands with the Iranian people.
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The United States supports the Iranian people, and we call on the regime to respect its citizens’ basic right to peacefully express their desire for change. America longs for the day when Iranians will take their rightful place alongside the free people of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Also on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley similarly praised the protesters in Iran and said the United States is seeking emergency sessions on Iran. Her comments came after President Trump began the new year by tweeting his support for the protests in Iran, saying it’s ”TIME FOR CHANGE!” CNN reports Trump may use the protests as a pretense to slam the Iran nuclear deal ahead of key legal deadlines looming this month. In mid-January, Trump will once again have to decide whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. Trump will also have to decide whether to renew temporary waivers for U.S. sanctions against Iran. It’s unclear if Trump’s condemnation of the Iranian regime’s response to the recent protests will factor into his decisions. On Sunday, the Iranian president, Rouhani, said he was skeptical Trump is genuinely concerned about the Iranian people.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] This man, Donald Trump, in America, who today wants to sympathize with our people, has forgotten that just a few months ago he labeled the Iranian nation a terrorist nation. This person, who is against the Iranian nation to his core, he wants to feel sorry for Iranians? There is a question here. It is open to suspicion.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by two guests: in Washington, D.C., Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and the author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Legacy of Diplomacy; and in Los Angeles, we’re joined by Reza Sayah, a freelance journalist based in Tehran, Iran, but in the U.S. for the holidays. He covered Iran for CNN International for over seven years. After his coverage of the 2009 anti-government protests, Iranian authorities denied him permission to work there for two years. Sayah later returned to Tehran to report on the ongoing nuclear talks, the 2013 presidential elections, the signing of the interim nuclear deal and, most recently, the 2017 Iranian presidential elections.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reza Sayah, let’s begin with you. You are just back from Iran. Can you talk about what these protests are all about?
REZA SAYAH: Yeah. I mean, you know, first off, Amy, I think it’s important to point out that it’s very difficult to verify, substantiate and confirm what’s happening all over Iran, even if you’re inside Iran at this hour, let alone if you’re sitting where I am or a reporter in Washington, D.C. And I’ve been very skeptical of reporters and analysts who have been unequivocal and certain about what’s happening in Iran.
Having said that, I’ve talked to a couple of sources today who tell me that these anti-government protests are seemingly dying down. Tehran, at this hour, seems to be quiet. Seems to be the case in other major cities. State media reporting today pro-government demonstrations in at least 10 cities, including Ahvaz and Kermanshah. These are pro-government demonstrators who are coming out, showing their support for the government and condemning the recent protests in the past several days.
And I think it’s important to point out that despite the attention that these anti-government protests have gotten over the past week, there was no indication, at least to me, that this was a repeat of 2009. I was there. You had hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people coming out into the streets in what appeared to be a legitimate threat to the government of Iran at that point. This time, the protests are indeed widespread, in at least 60 cities, according to reports. But the protests are small in number—according to reports, in the hundreds, in the thousands. Some are yelling anti-government slogans against the supreme leader, against the president. These protests are being driven by the high cost of living, unemployment. And these are grievances that the government must address. So, what we saw today, based on the limited information that I have, these are not the protests that we saw in 2009. This was not a mass uprising.
Even so, a lot of analysts, a lot of reporters described it as such. And I think most levelheaded and sober-minded analysts and reporters had a more sober analysis. These are significant protests, but it’s unclear where they’re headed. And information today is, seemingly, seemingly, they’re losing a little steam. And I think a lot of people are going to be anxious to see what happens today and in coming days, where this goes, and how the government, more important than anything else, addresses the economic grievances of the people protesting.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reza, I wanted to ask you a couple of things. One is your reaction to the response of President Rouhani, who has seemed to, at least in some public statements, say that there are legitimate concerns being expressed and the people have the right to protest. And secondly, the call by Nikki Haley for an emergency meeting of the United Nations to deal with this issue. I mean, it seems to me—I can’t imagine, for instance, in 1992, after the Rodney—the riots in Los Angeles following the court decision on Rodney King, where 55 people were killed and 12,000 were arrested just in Los Angeles—
REZA SAYAH: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that some other country would call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations to discuss the freedom struggle of the people of the United States.
REZA SAYAH: Yeah, you know, first off, Rouhani and the government’s reaction. Many people are arguing that the Iranian government is showing surprising restraint. The president of Iran has come out and said these are legitimate grievances and the Iranian people have the right to protest, although he condemned the violence. You have Iranian newspapers with headlines that are calling on the government to listen to the people. In many ways, this is unprecedented. I think the Iranian government understands the power of the Iranian people. Six months ago, there was a 70 percent turnout to vote for Rouhani. After the elections—I was there—there was hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demonstrating. I think the Iranian government understands that if there is a severe crackdown, these people can come out, and there could be a repeat of 2009. So I think they’ve shown relative restraint.
And when it comes to reaction from the U.S. government, I think many people in Iran believe that the U.S. government’s intention is regime change. And I think there’s certainly a lot of indications. This movement in Washington, led by the Trump administration, that has altered an Iranian foreign policy—there was cautious engagement under President Obama—to confrontation, that they’re pushing for these demonstrations to grow. And I think, in the coming days, you will see—you’ll see more of that. And I think many people in Iran are very skeptical of the U.S. expressing that they’re concerned about the Iranian people and alleged human rights violations and reaction to the protesters.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s play what the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said yesterday.
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think the ultimate endgame would be that the citizens and the people of Iran are actually given basic human rights. And he’d certainly like to see them stop being a state sponsor of terror. I think that’s something the whole world would like to see.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, responding to a question about whether the recent protests in Iran will influence Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think the president’s been very clear what his position is, in support of the Iranian people. And in terms of what decision he’ll make on that waiver, he hasn’t made a final one yet, but he’s going to keep every option on the table with regard to that.
AMY GOODMAN: Reza Sayah, can you respond to what that would mean?
REZA SAYAH: Well, I think Iranians are very aware. They’re very much political—they have a lot of political savvy. They know that these statements are familiar. These were the statements made in Syria, in Libya. And I think, unfortunately, a lot of Iranians have seen that the current policy in Washington is heading towards a movement that’s not going to support this nuclear agreement, this nuclear agreement that many people were hopeful that would change things for the Iranian economy. Again, once Donald Trump came into office, the policy changed to confrontation. The Iranians were hoping that the nuclear deal would lead to international trade with the Europeans. A lot of Europeans are eager to make some deals with the Iranian government. But I think a lot of people are aware that the global economy still is controlled by the U.S. dollar, the U.S. government. And Washington has shown that they don’t support this nuclear deal. And that’s why a lot of Europeans, a lot of European countries, have held back in making deals with Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Trita Parsi into the conversation, of the National Iranian American Council, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Legacy of Diplomacy. Of course, among the first tweets of President Trump in the new year, in the New Year’s Eve period, was attacking President Obama. Trita Parsi, this month, once again, President Trump will be deciding whether to certify the Iran deal. Talk about this and what these protests mean and if you think they will continue.
TRITA PARSI: Yeah. What is coming up in January is a deadline in which the U.S. is obligated to renew waivers on the sanctions, as long as Iran is living up to its end of the bargain. All of the reports from the IAEA show that the Iranians are complying with the agreement. And as a result, the U.S. is obligated to renew these waivers; otherwise, the U.S. will be out of compliance with the deal. This deadline is coming up sometime around January 12th.
And with these protests, I believe that Donald Trump has now found a new pretext to do what he had planned to do all along: to not renew the waivers and, as a result, essentially walk away from this deal. And then the question is if this deal will be able to survive without the United States. With the protests going on, he has a new pretext, and it will probably be easier for him to make this decision and sell it in Washington, compared to if he had done it three, four months ago.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Trita, you’ve said that you believe that these protests were actually initiated by more conservative elements within Iranian society, but have, in effect, backfired to some degree. Could you talk about that? And also, the impact of the—of the new confrontations now between the United States government, the Trump administration, and Iran on the economic situation in Iran?
TRITA PARSI: Definitely. So, I spoke to a person who was in Mashhad and observed these first protests. I believe it was last Thursday. And these were organized by hardliners who were hoping to put pressure and embarrass the Rouhani government. There is a tremendous amount of economic frustration. There were high hopes that the economy would move in the right direction. It has not, at least not lived up to the expectation. And the hardliners were trying to capitalize on that.
But things got out of control, because, rather quickly, more people joined these protests. They were not from the conservative ranks. And instead of just chanting slogans against Rouhani’s government, they were now targeting the regime as a whole, including the conservative establishment. And you actually had some conservative figures come out and express some regret, and, in a veiled way, say, “This is not the way it was supposed to turn out. These were not the slogans that were supposed to be said.” But now we are where we are, and it’s grown and gotten completely out of their hands.
When it comes to the confrontation between the United States and Iran, or the Trump administration, I think Reza got it absolutely right. It’s not just about the message. Some people will clearly agree with some of the messages that Donald Trump has said, because of their frustration with the government and with the situation. But the messenger carries no credibility, mindful of all of the measures that the Trump administration has done that has targeted the Iranian people, including people who are very much against the Iranian government, such as the Muslim ban, that has affected Iranian nationals more than any other nationality.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering, in terms of the government crackdown, the efforts to restrict or muzzle social media communications, I think there was in—The New York Times mentioned today that during the Green Revolution, back in 2009, only about a million Iranians had smartphones. Today, 48 million have smartphones, so there’s a lot more social media communication going on. Your sense of what’s happening with that crackdown?
TRITA PARSI: Yeah, so, some of these apps were closed down—Telegram, for instance. But people have rather quickly managed to find ways around that. I lost contact with some people for about two, three days, precisely because of the closing down of Telegram, but it reopened again because people find different ways to get around it, other apps, etc., etc. Ultimately, it’s a cat-and-mouse game that I don’t think the government can win, precisely because there are so many ingenious ways of getting around these different blocks.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by these protests, Trita?
TRITA PARSI: I was surprised. And I think—and I’ve looked around, and most other people were surprised, as well. I spoke to organizers of the Green Movement. They were taken by surprise. They had no expectation of this happening. They were not involved in it. And then, frankly, they were, you know, taking a calculated distance from this, precisely because they don’t fully understand where this came from and where it is heading.
Part of the reason why I think it took people by surprise, including myself, is because it’s a very different demographic that is out there protesting now, a demographic that has not been at the center of Iran’s political developments for the last two decades. And as a result, people were not necessarily paying attention to their needs and to their demands.
Moreover—I think it’s very important to understand this—what has happened in the last month in Iran is that a new budget proposal had been made in the parliament, which cut a lot of cash handouts to the poor, that would raise fuel prices 50 percent—things that would really affect poor people in Iran very, very negatively. And it appears that that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A lot of pent-up frustration, a lot of disappointment that the economic situation would get better, and then they saw this budget that actually would make their situation much worse. And that’s part of the reason why you have the outpouring in the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about involvement of perhaps the CIA, U.S. government, other Western governments? I mean, the U.S. very close right now to Saudi Arabia, an enemy of Iran. And the reason to raise the issue of the CIA, of course, in people’s minds in Iran, much more than the United States, is going back to the history of 1953 and the CIA overthrow, the U.S. government overthrow, of the democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
TRITA PARSI: This is, of course, a very sensitive point, precisely because of the history that you mention. And we have to be very frank: We don’t know. What we do know is that the people do have legitimate grievances because of both political, social and economic injustices in Iran. That, in and of itself, does not mean, however, that there may not be either attempts by outsiders to influence this or try to hijack it.
But I think it’s also interesting to see how the Rouhani government handled it. Whereas hardliners were rather quick to try to blame the whole thing on outside interference and saying that the protesters are in collusion with foreign agents, the Rouhani government came out and said that most people that are protesting are protesting because they’re angry, because they have legitimate frustrations. Some may be doing so because they’re under the influence of foreign agents. And I think they did so because they understand that they would be inciting more protest if they were to insult the protesters by essentially dismissing their grievances. Instead, they accepted that they have legitimate grievances, in an effort to try to calm down the situation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Trita, I wanted to ask you, in terms of your assessment—you mentioned President Rouhani. Your assessment of President Rouhani? Because Iran is a nation that is unusual in that it has this clerical hierarchy that wields such immense power, yet it has a vibrant democracy, where the people, in their elections, often don’t go along with the clerical hierarchy.
TRITA PARSI: Certainly not. And I think it’s quite interesting to see that those who the hardliners have been endorsing or are believed to be backing have almost always lost in these elections. These elections are not fully democratic, of course, because there’s a Guardian Council that vets candidates in a rather undemocratic way, so not anyone who wants to run can run. But within the limited choices, it tends to be quite competitive, certainly quite decisive. And as Reza pointed out, the voter participation has been quite high, about 70 percent last time. So there is a civil rights movement. There is a very strong civil society in Iran that has really internalized democratic values.
But what we’re seeing right now is actually protesters from a different demographic who seem to believe that they have nothing to lose, don’t seem to buy into the idea that the system can be changed from within, but instead are so frustrated that they are now calling for the system to be overthrown altogether.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Reza Sayah, as you head back to Iran—you’ve just come from Iran—as you cover it for many years, President Trump congratulating the protesters, challenging the establishment. You’re in Los Angeles right now. Do you think it could have a reverse effect, a boomerang effect, inspiring people in the United States, as well?
REZA SAYAH: You know what? I doubt it. But what’s interesting to me, what I observe, is, whenever you have protests in Iran, the smallest indication that there’s anti-government protest, there’s a convergence of interests. One is this U.S. policy, led by the neoconservatives, that’s one of hegemony, that says that you don’t negotiate with Iran, you don’t compromise with Iran, that any state that doesn’t submit to the interests of the U.S. cannot be negotiated with. And then you have the Iranian diaspora in the U.S., a very large community, that still sees Iran from the prism of the 1979 revolution. They despise the clerical establishment. They despise the mullahs. And then you have journalists, who want their stories viewed. They want clicks on their stories. The news media here in the U.S., they want viewerships. And all these interests converge oftentimes to create an impression that these demonstrations are it this time, that the government is going to be toppled.
And I think, you know, no one knows what’s going to happen in the coming days. But again, a lot of people are eager to see this government be overthrown. But this is a government, this is a system, that has lasted for 40 years. It is not because they’ve made radical steps. And I think a lot of people are going to be eager to see if they’re going to be addressing the very real grievances of the protesters in the coming days and the coming months.
AMY GOODMAN: Reza Sayah, we want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist, usually based in Tehran. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Legacy of Diplomacy.
When we come back, we remember Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, killed in a police chokehold in 2014. Erica, at the age of 27, has died. Stay with us.