Anti-government protests in Iran, launched in September following the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, have passed their 100th day, even as demonstrators have been met with widespread arrests, brutal violence by police and executions. The Human Rights Activists News Agency reports thousands of protesters have been arrested and more than 500 protesters have been killed so far, including 69 children. At least 26 more demonstrators are facing execution. As calls grow for the United States and the international community to respond to Iran’s brutal crackdown, President Biden has hinted attempts to restore the Iran nuclear deal may be dead. We’re joined by Hadi Ghaemi, executive director and founder of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, and Nahid Siamdoust, a former journalist who is now Middle East and media studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the ongoing anti-government protests in Iran, which passed their 100th day this week. The protests have been met with widespread arrests, brutal police violence and public executions. This week Iranian authorities targeted the family of the Iranian soccer superstar Ali Daei, who has for months been an outspoken critic of Iran’s crackdown, by, quote, “forcing an Iranian airliner to land mid-flight” so his wife and daughter could be removed from the plane and stopped from leaving Iran. The Human Rights Activists News Agency reports thousands of protesters have been arrested and more than 500 have been killed so far, including 69 children. This follows the recent public executions of two young men for their participation in protests. The Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights has identified at least 100 detainees sentenced to death or charged with capital offenses.
The protests began in September under the slogan “Woman, life, freedom,” following the death of the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police, after she was detained for what they called inappropriate attire.
As calls grow for the United States and the international community to respond to Iran’s brutal crackdown, President Biden has hinted attempts to restore the Iran nuclear deal may be dead.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Hadi Ghaemi is the executive director and founder of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which recently issued a series of recommendations on how Congress can play a vital role in supporting the protesters in Iran. And Nahid Siamdoust is a former journalist who’s reported across the Middle East, including in Iran, and is now Middle East and media studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Thank you so much for joining us. Let’s begin with Professor Siamdoust in Austin. Can you talk about the significance of these protests and why, unlike previous ones which were extremely serious across Iran, these have lasted so long, and if you expect them to continue and grow, Professor Siamdoust?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Sure. Thank you for having me, Amy.
These protests have been ongoing because they’re not a single-issue protest. So, they were caused by the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini, but they have been sort of brewing for many, many years and decades, and they’re rooted both in a corrupt state, a state with impunity, who, as we know, you know, with the protesters whom it has put on the death row, assigns them lawyers who, in part, will even speak against their own clients — and the impunity, the lack of justice, the fact that the Islamic Republic has been imposing a kind of lifestyle on Iranians at large, that people, especially the young ones, who have been on the streets, completely reject.
So, these protests are ongoing because — also because Iranians for several decades played along with this, you know, pretense of the Islamic Republic that the system could be reformed from within through various processes such as elections. And so there’s now been a reckoning, a nationwide reckoning, that that is no longer a possibility, that that will not be happening. The most recent elections of Ebrahim Raisi, of course, were the most engineered, where Iranians showed up in the sort of lowest numbers ever in the postrevolutionary history.
And so, it’s really a point at which many of these strands are coming together, and there’s a reckoning that this system is no longer a system that people at large want to maintain. And, you know, the deep cultural roots of it are visible in all the artistic productions that are going on, in all the creativity that’s there in the slogans.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nahid, could you comment, in fact, precisely on why it is that so many figures from the Iranian cultural world have been targeted, from film directors, award-winning film directors, actors, musicians? If you could explain what the significance of that is? And this phenomenon seems to be spreading.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Sure. Precisely because of the process that the Islamic Republic has pursued over the last few decades, which has shut down any kind of political, internal, organized opposition to it or alternatives to it, celebrities and filmmakers and musicians have, because of that crisis of representation, really become the spokespeople of the people. And so, they are the ones who have the kind of following on social media that allows them to speak for the people and to represent them. And that is precisely why also the state has been targeting them.
You know, some of the most powerful videos that we’ve seen or statements that we’ve seen recently have come either from rappers — Toomaj Salehi, who is also sitting on death row right now — and Mani Haghighi, the filmmaker, who spoke out very strongly against the minister of culture, who asked filmmakers and musicians and artists to come out again into the fray and produce their work, to which Mani Haghighi said, “I’m sorry, but we’re too busy mourning the people you’re killing to come out and dance for you.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hadi Ghaemi, could you comment on the enduring protests? And your organization has been documenting human rights abuses. Could you explain what those abuses are, Hadi Ghaemi?
HADI GHAEMI: Yeah. Good morning. And thank you for having me.
The human right violations are very widespread. They’re happening all over the country. And if you just look at the numbers, they speak very loudly. We have had over 500 people killed, and that is a minimum. I really believe it’s twice that, because I’m aware of many families who have been forced to not publicize the death of their children on the streets or family members. So, over 500, possibly 1,000, people are dead on the streets. Nearly 20,000 people have been taken into prison, and at least over 10,000 of them remain as political prisoners. We have 69 children, people under the age of 18, killed on the streets, and many more detained and taken to unknown locations.
So, to basically sum it up, with the executions happening right now, we are seeing very widespread growth and serious violations, and most serious one also includes sexual assault. We’re starting to get reports of rape of young girls and women in prisons, and sexual assault from the time they are picked up in the street 'til they're taken to interrogations and during the interrogations, and even death in custody as the result of very severe sexual assault. So, unfortunately, the situation in Iran in terms of human rights metrics is a complete disaster and is the worst I have ever seen it with my own eyes.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Hadi Ghaemi, talk about what women face, the sexual abuse. Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece —
HADI GHAEMI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — in The New York Times recently, “Iran Uses Rape to Enforce Women’s Modesty,” quoting — well, talking about a 14-year-old girl. Explain what happened.
HADI GHAEMI: Indeed, it’s a very heartbreaking story, and it came to us from very much on the ground, from people who were engaged and witness to every stage of it. This was a 14-year-old girl living in a neighborhood that, ironically, is populated by many people who work for the regime as security forces, actually for its special forces on the streets and their armed men on the street. Many of them, we were told, live in that neighborhood. And yet, the high school, the girls’ high school in that neighborhood, became a hub of protest and activity in late September, early October. And Masooumeh, the 14-year-old girl, had joined the protest in her school. The school cameras identified her. She was picked up, taken away for three days.
And when she came back after three days, she was completely mentally and physically destroyed. She had suffered serious sexual assault, including gang rape and violence, and had serious injuries to her body as a result and psychologically had completely lost it, and going around her apartment complex and telling everyone what had happened to her.
Her mother decided to publicize this and was in the process of documenting it and bringing it out to the open. But given the neighborhood, a security force who lived in the building and was actually a friend of the mother, became aware and alerted the authorities, who came again that night and took both the mother and daughter away.
After a few days, the neighbors had to pool together all their resources to go and post bail, a very heavy bail, for the mother. And the daughter’s body was turned to them in a mental hospital, in a psychiatric hospital. She had died. They had taken there. We don’t know what happened then, but her body was turned in. Again, our sources were involved in burying her. And then, the mother was so frightened, she took her other child and disappeared.
So, we’re very confident this happened, and we’re worried many more have happened. It’s starting to seep out from inside prisons and other families. We’re encouraging families to preserve the evidence, the medical evidence especially, 'til they're safe and secure to publicize it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Siamdoust, if you could also comment on this phenomenon, the truth of which is only just coming out, the sexual violence against protesters, and also the way in which the protesters are taking on new methods? There is now a lot of video circulating with turban tossing, protesters going after clerics and tipping over their turbans before running away. Professor Siamdoust?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Yes. You know, these protests have been fought on many, many fronts. And we have had, as Hadi Ghaemi just mentioned, these horrible, horrible reports of torture, of sexual abuse coming out from the prisons. And, you know, the tipping off the turbans, that one of the youths who had done that and who had been imprisoned for that and released from prison, three days after his release, committed suicide. So, you know, we know, based on both these reports, but also the number of people who — very young people who come out of — you know, the person who committed suicide was 16 — the young people who come out of prison and are no longer themselves or commit suicide, that clearly horrible things are happening once these children and adults are arrested and taken in.
AMY GOODMAN: Axios has a new report on President Biden saying, in newly surfaced video, that the Iran nuclear deal is dead. Axios reports Biden made the remark in a short conversation with a woman who attended an election rally in Oceanside, California. The woman asked Biden to announce that the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known, is dead. Biden responded he would not, for a lot of reasons, but then added, “It’s dead, but we’re not going to announce it.” You can listen closely.
SUDI FAROKHNIA: President Biden, could you please announce that JCPOA is dead? Can you just announce that?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No.
SUDI FAROKHNIA: No? Why not?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No. A lot of reasons. It is dead, but we’re not going to announce it.
AMY GOODMAN: Hadi Ghaemi, if you can talk about the significance of this happening now with the —
HADI GHAEMI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — protests taking place? You are a former CUNY professor of physics, as well.
HADI GHAEMI: Yes. Yeah, so, look, before these protests, the JCPOA negotiations were going nowhere. The Iranian government had missed a lot of opportunities to come back to the deal, and it was throwing a lot of obstacles in the path of it. Then these protests happened, and the situation is completely different.
Let me tell you what I hear from inside Iran. The Iranian people, at least the ones I talk to, and the analysts are saying that, “Look, we are a party to this deal, too.” Especially the economic benefits that would flow to the regime at this moment is absolutely not justified, and let alone the fact that there can be no trust that they will follow up with their nuclear commitments if they sign a new deal. So, they’re saying that, for example, the blocked money in the banks that could come back to the Iranian government is really belonging to the Iranian people. It is the oil sales proceeds, and the Iranian people have no role in these negotiations, and their interests should be protected. So, they are especially pointing out that it shouldn’t — any economic benefit should only be tied not just to the nuclear activity, but to the crimes being committed. They want a moratorium on executions. They want a release of all political prisoners. They want the freedom to assemble as their Constitution guarantees.
So, the situation has changed a lot, but the Iranian government is sending a lot of signals that it is willing to come back to negotiations, because it obviously wants the economic benefits that will beef up its repressive machinery, which is under a lot of stress. But I hope President Biden really meant it, and especially Europe and U.S. are not trying to strike a backroom deal of thinking this way they can put the nuclear issue in check. I think it would be a disaster to move forward with the old deal. We really need to construct a new package that represents the interests of Iranian people, who are not at the table.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hadi, can you explain what the punitive measures now in place, the sanctions against Iran, what effects those are having, whether they have been in any sense weakening the regime or the economy? And if so, in what ways?
HADI GHAEMI: Well, the new sanctions, not really. They’re targeted against the individual and institutions mostly involved in human right violations or carrying out the violence. None of these people really have assets or activity abroad that we can know that is substantial. But it is a minimum that should have been done.
I think a lot more has to be done to send a strong message to Iran. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations, so it somewhat doesn’t have many tools in its toolbox. But Europe does. EU, we have been recommending, should be pulling its ambassadors in tandem, in protest. And this doesn’t mean — they argue that we need diplomatic representation, and it’s more important to have eyes on the ground. And I agree with them. We’re not saying to sever all diplomatic relations. But the ambassadors are mostly doing a symbolic role inside Iran. They’re not needed. And it would be much more impactful.
And then, the Security Council has obligated itself, since 2017, to have a session and attention to instances of sexual violence in conflict. And this usually happens in February, March. So, I believe the Security Council should take that up.
And, of course, Iran’s work with Russia and the support it’s getting from Russia and China makes it much more essential for international community to come up with solutions to address the crisis, which also involves Iran’s destructive role in the Ukraine war.
So, I think the international community, especially U.S., Europe, Japan, like-minded countries, and Global South, should be coming together and exerting much more diplomatic, political isolation of the Iranian government, given the way it has behaved. And only then the Iranian people will feel like the international community is doing something substantial.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me put this question to Professor Siamdoust. Do you feel the same way as Hadi Ghaemi around the issue of the nuclear deal? And also, the significance of Israel’s new government, the most far-right government in its history, now coming into power, with Benjamin Netanyahu appointing his longtime political ally Tzachi Hanegbi as head of the National Security Council? He is known as the hawk on Iran.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Yeah, that’s right. Yes, I think Iranians, at large, and the activists on the ground, for sure, they are seeking the solidarity of the international community, and especially its leaders. They are not looking for the international community and these foreign governments to make new deals with the Islamic Republic. They are asking for them to really highlight, you know, the executions that are going on, the repression that is going on, and not to make deals with a state that is repressing and killing its own people. That has been the demand of the protesters.
As far as Israel is concerned, and its new national security head, who recently commented that its pilots should get ready because in two or three years’ time, they might be bombing Iran, certainly, the geopolitical situation in the region is volatile, and not having a deal with Iran and Iran being able to develop its nuclear energy, of course, has always raised concerns about nuclear arms, even though Iran does say that it is not pursuing them. And so, it’s a volatile situation that Western governments and other foreign governments are trying to balance. But that has to be — you know, that has to be balanced against the kinds of demands that foreign governments will make of the state in Iran, and fundamental things have to change before any talk of that could proceed. And many protesters and most protesters and activists would say that they are not looking for that. They are not looking for a deal with the Islamic Republic, because they are trying to unseat the Islamic Republic.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nahid, could you explain, just before we end, whether there are any governments, in Europe or elsewhere, that have been taking measures in solidarity with the protesters in Iran?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: I mean, most recently, the foreign minister of Germany has said that they will not be entering nuclear negotiations with Iran. She has stated — the spokesperson for the minister has stated that Germany is on the side of the protesters, and their focus and their attention is toward the repression that is ongoing and to the people’s fight for freedom and justice, and that they are not interested in starting negotiations. So, that was really circulated on social media. It was embraced by Iranian activists and Iranians at large. And that is kind of the approach that Iranians are looking for.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Nahid Siamdoust is Middle East and media studies professor at University of Texas, Austin, former journalist —
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — who’s reported across the Middle East, including in Iran. And Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director and founder of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, years ago was a professor of physics at CUNY, the City University of New York, and worked at Human Rights Watch, as well, where he particularly exposed the plight of migrant workers in Dubai.
Next up, Russian President Putin says he’s prepared to end the war in Ukraine and that he’ll negotiate with anyone. Are negotiations likely as Russia pounds Ukraine across the country today? We’ll speak with longtime antiwar activist, professor Gilbert Achcar, author, with Noam Chomsky, of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: The protest song “Mama, Don’t Watch TV” by the Russian activist group Pussy Riot. According to the group, the song uses the words of a captured Russian conscript soldier, who told his mother, “There are no Nazis here. Don’t watch TV.”