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Democracy and Protests in Iran

Aired December 10, 2009 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, U.S. President Barack Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, and he says America is bearing witness to the global struggle for rights and justice, including inside Iran. But are those words enough?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

This week, tens of thousands of Iranian students defied a ban and launched a new wave of demonstrations. They were the biggest protests in months and a clear indication that the anger over the disputed election six months ago continues.

The government's efforts to stop images of those demonstrations from reaching the rest of the world failed, as you can see from these pictures that emerged via the Internet. Authorities also tried to prevent foreign news organizations from covering the protests, sending SMS messages to their cell phones, telling them that they could not be on the streets for several days this week, but the world still watches.

During his Nobel lecture in Norway, President Obama raised the plight of the protestors, even as he walked the fine line of trying to engage with the very government that is cracking down on them.

And joining me now, the Wall Street Journal's Farnaz Fassihi. She's been tracking evidence of Iranian authorities trying to intimidate Iranians even abroad, and John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary for Iran at the U.S. State Department, and Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, who won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival for her film "Women without Men" and who's become a voice of protest outside Iran.

Welcome to you all. Welcome, Shirin.

Welcome, John from the State Department and Farnaz in Beirut.

I want to ask you first, Farnaz, you in the Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation, and you found chilling evidence of sort of a global intimidation and monitoring by the Iranian authorities on protestors abroad. Tell us the heart of what you discovered.

FARNAZ FASSIHI, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Hi, Christiane. What we discovered through several months of investigation was that there were methods in place inside Iran to monitor what the Iranians abroad were doing in terms of anti-government protests or support for the opposition. We found that ordinary people, not just prominent activists, were getting harassed. They were getting intimidating and threatening e-mails. Some of them were stopped when traveling to Iran and asked to log on to their Facebook account.

Many reported that their passports, their Iranian passports were confiscated. They were called in for questioning. And a couple of people even said that their families back in Iran had received threatening phone calls. And in one case that I reported for the paper, a young man who lived in the U.S. and was very active on Facebook had his father arrested.

AMANPOUR: The Iranian authorities, while they haven't specifically commented on this, officials here have said that the allegation that the Islamic republic is creating limitations and problems for Iranians visiting from abroad is false. How have you been able to document the scope of this monitoring? You say something like 900 people, for instance, have been monitored in Germany alone.

FASSIHI: The German government actually put out a report this fall that they had evidence that Iranian intelligence agents were filming the anti-government protests, and they had asked the German government to ban them. Despite the fact that the Iranian government has -- has told us that they -- that Iranians outside face no problems, the government of Iran, the deputy chief of the commander forces, Mr. Jaba Difik (ph), said that he -- that Iran has created Internet lieutenants, and they were monitoring opposition faces inside and outside of Iran, including protestors, and that they would be dealt with. And Iran has several times said that it considers Facebook activity, Twitter activity as part of the soft revolution that the West has waged against it.

AMANPOUR: Let me move, then, onto John Limbert at the State Department, deputy assistant now for Iran there. How does this complicate what the administration is trying to do?

JOHN LIMBERT, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR NEAR EAST: Christiane, thank you -- thank you very much. I don't think -- I don't think it does especially. I can't do any better than quote the words of the president about authorities who declare -- seem to declare war on their own people or who are afraid of their own people.


And let me, first of all, salute the brave people of Iran and who are going out on the street and demonstrating and braving this repression. And the fact that it has spread outside and that it has gone out, to me, is an indication of just how -- how much the regime is afraid of its own people.

AMANPOUR: Well, since you bring it up, let's -- let's play now what President Obama did say in his Nobel lecture, first referring to the people of Burma and also to the people of Iran.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements -- these movements of hope and history, they have us on their side.


AMANPOUR: So the president clearly there said, "They have us on their side." What does that mean, John Limbert, if the United States is declaring that it's on the side of the people there?

LIMBERT: It's very clear, Christiane. We will not sit silently. We will not ignore what happens on the streets of Tehran. And we believe, as we have always believed, that the Iranian people deserve decent treatment from their government.

AMANPOUR: And you say you won't sit silently, but at the same time, obviously, there are diplomatic negotiations that have go on, most particularly over the nuclear clock. There's the possibility of sanctions going on. How do you walk that line of engagement and being on the side of the legitimate aspirations of the people?

LIMBERT: No, of course. That's -- that's a good question. I think, Christiane, our diplomacy is good enough that we can do both, that we can make clear statements of support for the aspirations of the Iranian people for decent treatment from their government. At the same time, we can certainly talk with the government and the authorities there about things like the nuclear issue or Iraq or Afghanistan or -- or other issues. And we have clearly offered to do so, and we are determined to do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to Shirin Neshat, not only an acclaimed artist, but also now a public voice for those protestors who are inside Iran. Do you believe that the world is paying sufficient attention and their human rights and legitimate aspirations are being embraced by the West?

SHIRIN NESHAT, FILMMAKER AND ARTIST: Christiane, let me tell you how it looks on our side. I feel that the students in Iran, the people of Iran, and the people of Iran outside of Iran are setting a great example of people who are truly fighting for democracy. And this creates a sense of hope for the rest of the region, the entire world, but we don't feel that we have the sufficient support or the protection that is necessary.

And I think many Iranians inside and outside feel that they've been betrayed, particularly...


NESHAT: ... with this emphasis on the nuclear weapon issue. It has distracted the world from paying attention to the atrocity that is taking place today in Iran. All of us are at risk, and we're particularly -- a lot of us are American citizens, as well, several in prison. We don't see much support on this government showing direct action to help them out. And -- and I think this is really a disappointment on Iranian side.

AMANPOUR: Let me press you, Mr. Limbert. Shirin raises the issue of Americans who are currently in jail in Iran. What is the government doing? And do you have any indication that they're going to be -- they're going to be released, for instance, the three hikers?

LIMBERT: Well, I would like to see them released as soon as possible. We all would like them to be. This has -- this has been very unfortunate. Our hearts go out to these innocent people who clearly wandered across an unmarked border and have been in custody for much -- for much too long. We are pursuing all available avenues.

I should note that -- that our protecting power in Tehran, the -- represented by the Swiss embassy, has been able to visit these people. We are pressing for more visits. We are pressing for better treatment. And, of course, we are pressing for release as soon as possible.

AMANPOUR: I want to play a little clip of your film, Shirin, that won that prize at the Venice Film Festival. It's about student protests back in early 1950s, which, in fact, today's student protests commemorate. Let's just play this.






AMANPOUR: Shirin, are you surprised that some of those very words -- I mean, when you shot this, did you know that what was going to be going on in Iran today would still resemble it?

NESHAT: I have been working on this film for six years, and it was absolute coincidence that, as we were finalizing the edit, the current event happened in Iran, the election. And so it was, really, an accident. But at the same time, 1953, for all of us who were interested in Iranian politics, is a determining historical point.

AMANPOUR: That's when the U.S. and the U.K. had the coup that brought back the shah of Iran.

NESHAT: Exactly. And I think that, particularly these last few days, as the anniversary of the student movement comes, we realize that Iranian people have been fighting for democracy and freedom for over 150 years. And -- and -- and also, the women of Iran have been also fighting for idea of democracy and equality. So how odd that this struggle continues today with such similarity and force.

And I -- can I just make one second comment that the issue of the American passport does not only belong to the American-born, but the Iranian-born, who are also holding American citizenship, including Kian Tajbakhsh. So when I referred to the help and protection, it's only not for those people who are born in this country, but those who are, you know, currently the citizen of United States.

AMANPOUR: Absolutely. And we'll talk more about this, including the ongoing protests, when we come back. Our guests will rejoin us in a moment.



AMANPOUR: Joining me again is Shirin Neshat here in the studio, John Limbert, the U.S. deputy assistant of state -- secretary of state at the State Department, and in Beirut, Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal.

Farnaz, to you, what -- is there anything surprising to you that these protests continue, despite this intimidation, the crackdown, the arrests, and everything that we know is going on?

FASSIHI: I think it's very surprising to see that the student movement and also the green movement as a whole is continuing in Iran, despite the government's best -- you know, best effort to contain them by waves of arrests, by intimidation, by banning many of the students from education.

But I think one thing that we can see through our reporting is that the protests are getting more and more radical. And, in fact, as the government of Iran has crossed many of the red lines, the opposition is also crossing the red lines. And it's created this vicious cycle.

For example, what began as simply a recount of the vote, as we saw a few days ago on Student Day, is turning into an overall protest of the entire government, where, you know, they carried -- the students carried the flag of Iran without the -- the Allah emblem that the Islamic republic put in the flag, and they were burning pictures of some of the founding fathers and clergy, which is a very radical move.


So, indeed, it seems like, as the government cracks down, the -- the opposition also strengthens.

AMANPOUR: And, John Limbert, it's possible, it's likely, in fact, given Iran's history, that this could continue, that there are many, many dates, many, many religious observances and other such observances that could be used and probably will be for continuing demonstrations.

We're also being told of splits now in the conservative ranks, whether it's amongst politicians, whether it's among the senior ayatollahs and other clerics, and of a dropping-off of support in some rural areas for President Ahmadinejad.

Can I ask you, as diplomats who have obviously taken on the task of engaging with Iran, are you tempted to see how this popular movement plays out? Or do you continue the diplomacy at the same time? And if so, how are you continuing the diplomacy? Because nothing seems to be happening.

LIMBERT: Christiane, nobody said this was going to be easy. This -- we obviously do both. Let me echo something that Ms. Neshat said about how long this struggle has been going on. I mean, Iranians have been -- have been seeking a voice in their own affairs and decent treatment from their - - from their government now for well over 100 years. Most of that 100 years, I would add, has been a history of frustration and defeat.

But what is remarkable to me and what I salute these young people for is their willingness to come back again and again and to -- and -- and to keep at it.

In terms of changing the last 30 years of futility in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, you know, if you wait for the good -- for the good time to do it, it will never come. It will always be a bad -- it's always the wrong time to do it. You have to bite the bullet, whatever the situation is.

AMANPOUR: You know, I should have and I'm really remiss in not pointing out that you were a hostage at the embassy in Iran in 1979 through 1980, and it was that hostage-taking which ruptured the relations between Iran and the United States. And I guess what I'm trying to figure out is, right now, here you have this movement inside Iran whose culmination may coincide with benchmarks that you've put down diplomatically, for instance, on the nuclear clock. Are you now pursuing sanctions? What do you think is going to happen in the new year, John, the sanctions?

LIMBERT: Well, if -- if I knew that, I'd have a much higher position than I -- than I did, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: No, no, sanctions, sanctions. I want to know: Is that the -- is that going to happen in -- in January or whenever?

LIMBERT: Let me say this. We are -- we are looking at all -- at all kinds of measures to change this relationship and to persuade our -- to persuade those in Iran to enter a more constructive relationship. That includes constant consultation with our allies, and particularly the P5- plus-one.

I should point out, by the way, that we have achieved a very high degree of unity among these people, and we share -- together we share our concerns about the direction Iran is going in many directions.

AMANPOUR: OK, well, let me turn to Shirin, then, because, you know, this is obviously for you visceral. It's emotional. You want to see the rights of the people. Do you also believe that Iran should be brought into a diplomatic relationship with the United States?

NESHAT: Well, first of all, I'm really thinking that United States should not feel so innocent in relation to what's going on in Iran. After all, as we depicted in the film, the 1953 coup d'etat was the determining point for the breakdown of democracy in Iran, and so the -- the United States should not think that this is Iranian people only struggling against their own government, but also against imperialism and this should be celebrated.

So the United States has a direct relationship to where we are at today in Iran. And -- and so, I feel that, you know, our position in the world is very crucial. Where this struggle ends, it's very critical, because it absolutely set an example whether such governments could continue with such level of atrocity or -- or that they would not be tolerated. And so United States will be giving a very important signal if, in fact, Mr. Obama will stand with his words, that would he, in fact, tolerate such government in that region, and I don't mean sanctions. I don't mean interventions, but really insisting on basic human rights.


AMANPOUR: I want to ask Farnaz again. You and I are in the same position. We basically can't go back at the moment. That's why you're there in Beirut, and -- and I'm here, and there's a big sort of crackdown on foreign correspondents in Iran. How are you able to keep up on this daily, minute-by-minute basis on what's actually going on there?

FASSIHI: You know, I think that the Iranian people have demonstrated citizen journalism at its best, Christiane. I mean, you know, there was a ban on the protests these past couple of days. We were even worried that we might not get wire updates. But it was remarkable to see that the network that we have inside Iran of student activists, of -- of people that we know, of some of the -- both the opposition and -- and the other side of the students were feeding us information. They were e-mailing student information. They were updating it on Twitter. They were putting it on Facebook.

And quite a number of bloggers and Iranian Web sites that operate from outside of Iran were streamlining all of this information live so we could understand what was happening, like, you know, pretty much -- sorry?

AMANPOUR: I just wanted to ask you, how far do you think the internal divisions are going to go? And do you foresee crackdown on the actual leaders of the reform movement? So far, they've been immune to actual arrest. Do you think that this will continue or that they will be brought in?

FASSIHI: It's very unpredictable. I think pretty much every day in the hard-line newspapers and on wire services, like Kayhan newspaper and Fars News, there's calls to arrest Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two opposition leaders, and to -- you know, they call them the head of the unrest, and to go after the -- basically, the head of the lion. So that conversation is definitely very alive among the hard-liners.

But the question is what -- whether the Islamic republic thinks that arresting these people will cost them more in terms of angering the opposition and the streets of Iran and then they're not going to be able to contain it. As we've seen the trend, as I'm sure you've followed, is that the more -- the more that they try to clamp down, it just gets worse.

So I think at this point, probably, if they arrest the leaders, it will -- it might just, you know, end in more street demonstrations and more unrest, but it's definitely possible.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to John again, John Limbert of the State Department. You know, Iran is accusing the United States of having some 11 people under arrest in various different countries, including -- they say Saudi Arabia has handed over a senior Iranian nuclear scientist to the United States. Is that true?

LIMBERT: I've heard these reports, Christiane, but not -- not in great detail. I haven't seen a list of these names. What I would suggest is that if the -- if the Iranians are interested in finding out about the welfare of their citizens, they come to us through their interests section here in Washington, which is the Pakistani embassy, and make a request to find out the welfare of these -- these people.

I must add, by the way, that the number seems to keep shifting around, so I haven't seen a list of names. But if we do get a list of -- a list of names and identities, I can -- I can assure you that we will do our utmost to fulfill our responsibilities under international practice.

AMANPOUR: Well, some of those names are, in fact, out in the public domain in -- in news reports that have come from Iran.

But let me turn to Shirin Neshat. What is now the outside protest movement doing? What are you doing here in the United States and elsewhere to -- to -- to keep this alive, as you want?

NESHAT: Well, oddly, a lot of artists, filmmakers, writers have become very active. The whole feeling of activism has reawakened the Iranian community outside and has unusually united them in a way that I don't recall ever.

And so most of us are at the moment very much concerned about the prisoners, helping them to be freed in Iran, and -- and really negotiating as much as possible with different -- Amnesty International, different places -- to really help the people of Iran that are in trouble, basically.

AMANPOUR: Shirin Neshat, thank you so much for joining us.

John Limbert at the State Department, thank you very much for joining us.

And Farnaz Fassihi over there in Beirut from the Wall Street Journal, thank you for joining us.

And this, obviously, will continue, and we'll continue to discuss it. And for more on Iran, go to our Web site,, where you can watch a documentary that we did about Iran 10 years ago called "Revolutionary Journey" and when we first spotlighted the rise of the Internet in people's ability to contact and communicate with the rest of the world.

And next, our "Post-Script." We'll be back in a moment with some extraordinary images from Shirin Neshat's photos.



AMANPOUR: And now, our "Post-Script." We want to leave you with a photo from Shirin Neshat's "Women of Allah" series, in which she focuses on the collision between politics, faith and feminism in Iran. She calls this power image "Rebellious Silence," the face, the poetry, and the barrel of a gun. All are meant as reminders of the leading role that women have played in Iran's Islamic revolution 30 years ago, just as they did after June's presidential election. And in this woman's gaze, says Neshat, there is a sense of betrayal and anxiety.

And before we go, a quick programming note. This weekend, we'll have an extended edition of my in-depth interview with the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Go to our Web site,, where you can come into our office for a chat about what General McChrystal said.

And that's it for now. And tomorrow, we'll be talking to artist and climate change activist Maya Lin about the threat from global warming. So for all of us here, goodbye from New York.