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Bloody Showdown in Iran; Catastrophic Explosive Found in NW Flight 253; Flight 253 Disrupted Again; Violent Clashes Grip Tehran

Aired December 27, 2009 - 22:00   ET


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin tonight with breaking news. Sources tell CNN there was enough high explosive on board Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day to blow it out of the sky. As if nerves weren't on edge enough, today that same flight had another emergency with a disruptive passenger as it approached Detroit. The suspect that failed bombing is now in federal prison, and preparing for a court hearing on Monday.

And overnight, countless air travelers on one of the busiest travel days of the year now face tighter security and new rules about what they can and cannot do, including bathroom breaks in flight.

And in Iran, one of the most important religious observances among Shiite Muslims is now marked with blood and possibly the death of the nephew of one of Iran's most prominent opposition leaders.

Good evening. I'm Drew Griffin, in for Don Lemon tonight. We want to welcome our viewers from around the world joining us this hour on CNN International.

We knew the Christmas day threat aboard Northwest Flight 253 was bad. But now we know it was even worse than we thought. The amount of high explosive, PETN, in the plane was enough to destroy it in flight.

CNN Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve joins us by phone, breaking this news from Washington tonight.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Drew, I hear from a source with knowledge of the investigation that the amount of explosive carried by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was sufficient to blow a hole in the side of the aircraft and take it down. As you know, there's been a lot of talk about how much explosive there was, how powerful the device might have been, whether because of the altitude of the plane or the structure of the plane it might have been able to survive a blow.

But the information from this source is that the amount of explosive was enough to take down the plane. If this device had worked as it was intended, and if passengers had not been alert to this situation, this could indeed have been a great tragedy.


GRIFFIN: Jeanne Meserve from Washington tonight.

Thanks, Jeanne.

PETN is a high explosive similar to nitro-glycerin. It was developed after World War I, and is used as explosive power. This is a demonstration uploaded on YouTube of what 50 grams can do. You'll see that soon, I believe.

It shoots flames and blasts a tree in half. PETN is the same substance that shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to use to bring down a plane exactly eight years ago. Two men, both from Nigeria, both traveling the exact same route, just days apart.

For a while today we were asking could this be happening again? A second security scare on board a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines jet in three days. Tonight the passenger was released from the custody of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

CNN's Martin Savidge puts it all together.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two days after a terror suspect attempted to set off an explosive device on board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Sunday the pilots of the same flight approaching the motor city radioed in requesting emergency assistance. But unlike Christmas Day, this time the danger was minimal. Initially said to be an unruly passenger acting suspiciously, pacing the aisles, spending long periods in the bathroom and being verbally combative with the crew. The plane land safely and taxied to a remote area of the Detroit airport, where it was surrounded by emergency vehicles.

At one point passengers' luggage was lined up on the taxiway to be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs. Several hours later authorities said the passenger was not a safety risk but instead had simply been ill.

ROBERT FICANO, WAYNE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: About an hour before the flight was to be land -- to land, at that point the crew became suspicious, or concerned, because this individual kept going into the bathroom and then he wouldn't respond and then he wouldn't come out.

SAVIDGE: Even though alerts regarding the incident had been transmitted all the way to the White House, authorities say most passengers on board the plane had no idea there was a problem until after it landed, and the pilot made an announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was strange because of the news a couple days ago. So actually, it was the same problem. We thought maybe it would be another one, another attack.

SAVIDGE: Instead of the incident, many passengers were talking about the new beefed-up security measures put in place in the wake of Friday's attempted attack, which those passengers faced for the first time as they boarded the flight in Amsterdam.

KEN RAUB, PASSENGER: They had more security people there, and they were checking everybody's luggage thoroughly. I mean, everything. So it was strong.

SAVIDGE: Shortly before Sunday's scare, it was announced the man charged with attempting to bring down an airliner on Christmas Day 23- year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been released from the Ann Arbor Hospital where he'd been treated for third degree burns he suffered detonating the device. Little more was said by authorities except that the Nigerian had been handed over to U.S. Marshals, and was currently being held at a facility in Millen, Michigan. Investigators are still trying to determine if the young man acted alone or had help. As they do, Sunday's incident was a clear indicator that for the flying public security and nerves are both on the rise.

Martin Savidge, CNN, Detroit.


GRIFFIN: As the potential seriousness of the Christmas Day attack grows, so does the criticism of the president and his administration for what critics say is too little of a response. In fact, no real response at all from the president himself, vacationing in Hawaii. That's where White House correspondent Ed Henry is standing by with the president's reaction to the latest going on here.


ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Drew, White House officials say there's no indication that this suspect was part of a larger terror plot. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about whether the Obama administration could have done more to snuff out this threat much sooner.


HENRY: The president's Homeland Security secretary tried her best to reassure the American public by shifting focus to what happened after the attempted terror attack in Detroit on Christmas Day.

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: One thing I'd like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight.

HENRY: But Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said the problem is a system did not work before the detonation. SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), HOMELAND SECURITY CHAIRMAN: The truth is he was able to break through all of our Homeland Security. If it was not for our good fortune, grace of God that the explosive did not go off, 300 people and many more on the ground probably in Michigan would have been killed.

HENRY: Pressed on how the suspect was able to get explosive chemicals onto the flight from Amsterdam, Secretary Janet Napolitano said on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," the president has ordered a review but so far there's no evidence of improper screening.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: If he was properly screened and he got on anyway with that, it doesn't feel that safe.

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, it should. This was one individual of literally thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year. He was stopped before any damage could be done. And now the forensics are analyzing, well, what actually could have been done with whatever substance he had and whatever amount.

HENRY: But all it takes is one individual, and Republicans are demanding to know how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed on the plane just weeks after his father visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to express concern about his son's ties to radicals.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: It's amazing to me that an individual like this who was sending out so many signals could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.

HENRY: Administration officials tell CNN after the father's visit to the embassy, Abdulmutallab's name was placed into a broad database of suspected terrorists, but there was insufficient evidence to put him on either a no-fly list or subject him to secondary screening, which might have detected the explosives.

NAPOLITANO: He was on a general list, which over 500,000 people, everybody had access to it. But there was not the kind of credible information in the sense of derogatory information that would move him up that list.


HENRY: The secretary said that in addition to the first investigation into how the explosives got onto the plane, the president has now ordered a second review into watch list procedures to see if they need to be updated to help prevent terror attacks.


GRIFFIN: Ed Henry in Honolulu with the president.

A lot of talk about those terror watch lists. But the truth is there's more than half a million names listed. Well, who are they, and which ones are the biggest threats? We're getting answers from counterterrorism expert standing by. And a busy holiday travel weekend just got a lot more hectic. Airport security tight. The rules are changing yet again. Brace for it. You could be patted down, double screened, or even denied a blanket.

And protests erupt into pandemonium. This is in Iran. Anti- government rallies turn deadly again. A high price for the opposition. We're going to have the very latest.


GRIFFIN: Far from Detroit, there's another major story we're following for you tonight. The increasingly violent demonstrations going on in Iran. Anti-government protesters clashed with security forces in the Iranian capital for the second straight day today.

CNN's Reza Sayah is at the Iran desk here at CNN Center.

Reza, you almost predicted this last night.

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Drew, because it actually started on Saturday. And what a weekend. These were some of the most intense protests we've seen since the disputed elections on June 12th in some of the most fierce clashes we've seen between supporters of the opposition movement and security forces. And what we saw this weekend could be a turning point for the post-election turmoil in Iran.

Graphic amateur video and pictures coming into the Iran desk throughout the day on Sunday that really illustrate how intense, how vicious things got. You just saw one of the protesters with a bloody face. In speaking to witnesses throughout the day, they describe over and over again how security forces were going after protesters, beating them on the head.

And there you saw a video of someone with a bloody face. And there you see what is a Basij headquarter. Iran's private militia. One of several that were set on fire by protesters. According to opposition Web sites, these clashes at times turned deadly. Witnesses describe gunshots. According to opposition Web sites, as many as five people were killed. Among the dead, the nephew of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. According to Mousavi's own Web site, his nephew was shot and killed on Sunday in revolution Square with a bullet in the heart. He passed away shortly after in a hospital.

There you see more aggressive attacks by protesters themselves. What you're looking at is what appears to be a police van. And there you see protesters attacking the van. And moments later, you're going to see them drag out what appears to be a horrified driver.

In previous protests we've seen protesters run away from security forces. And there you see an example of how protesters were attacking security forces, attacking members of the private militia, Iran's Basij. And these pictures were not isolated. According to witnesses, they were happening throughout Sunday. An indication of how the tensions were escalating through these protests on Sunday.

Coming up at the bottom of the hour, we're going to dissect what happened not just today in Iran but throughout the weekend. A major holiday. And what this means for the opposition movement and Iran's hard-line leaders, who have this opposition movement as a thorn on their side. And this opposition movement doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And we'll be seeing much more of the pictures, the incredible pictures coming in at the bottom of the hour.

Thanks, Reza.

Well, a scare in the skies. Security crackdown on the ground. Lines are long at airports this busy holiday weekend. What you can expect if you are about to catch a flight.

And the government had his name. So why couldn't airport officials stop this scene on board that Christmas flight into Detroit? What it really means to be on a terror watch list.


GRIFFIN: Millions of people are on the move this holiday weekend. And for countless, air passengers around the world especially they must now do a tighter security because of the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard Northwest Flight 253.

Many airports have a more visible police presence, plus longer lines and even longer delays. Airlines are implementing slight variations, but generally, the new security rules require this -- more physical patdowns at the gate, more frequent checks of carry-on bags. And during the last hour of flight, no standing in the aircraft, no blankets or personal items on your lap, no touching of carry-on baggage. And again, in the last hour, no using restrooms unless escorted by a crew member.

These we should say are these longer flights coming from international. And federal officials urge passengers to stay vigilant and report any suspicious activity.

Let's get an update on air travel tonight. Our Kara Finnstrom is live in Los Angeles at the international terminal there.

Kara, what are some of the changes that you're noticing there tonight?

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Drew, as you can see, big crowds here. First of all, some of these lines actually go out the door all the way down the pavement to the next terminal. You know, this is always busy here this time of year.

But if you take a look behind me here at the x-ray screening area, you can see why. With all those extra security checks. Look at these huge boxes and big pieces of luggage. Usually you have bulkier luggage, bulkier boxes going on some of these international flights. And these screeners have quite a job in front of them. Sometimes sending these boxes through multiple times, sometimes doing hand searches.

Joining us live now here is Michael, one of the folks who is taking an international flight tonight.

Thanks for joining us.


FINNSTROM: What has it been like for you? I know you were outside, waiting in line. You've got family holding your place.

MICHAEL: Yes. It's so cold outside. And this line is terrible. Like I think this is the first time this has happened. Well, I think this is for the security measurement. But it's OK. I just wish that everything will be faster than this because it's so cold outside and a lot of people are waiting.

FINNSTROM: All right. Well, thanks for joining us here. And I know you needed to get back in your place in line.

But, Drew, one of the other sentiments as we've been speaking with these people that we've been hearing is they don't like the long lines. They're a little frustrated with the repeat screenings. But what they are excited about is seeing that there are these extra security measures in place because they say they are concerned with the threat that the country saw on Friday.

GRIFFIN: Kara, in all of this, because of one 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Now we know he was on a terror watch list. Added to that list last month. But there are at least four different watch lists.

Mutallab was on the least restrictive, known as TIDE. This is what it stands for according to the government. Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. About 500,000 names are on that list. Within that is a somewhat smaller group. About 400,000 people. On the TSDB -- Terrorist Screening Database. And among those are about 14,000 names on the selectee list, which means they must go through -- under secondary screening before boarding a flight. And finally, the much talked about no-fly list, 4,000 people who are forbidden from flying on commercial aircraft. These lists are compiled by the FBI.

Larry Johnson is former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. He joins us by phone now to explain more about what these lists mean and what they are supposed to accomplish.

Mr. Johnson, thank you for joining us.


GRIFFIN: And the question right out of the gate is, this guy's on a terror watch list of some kind. What, if anything, does that really mean?

JOHNSON: Let me correct one thing that you said. The TIDE database is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center under the control of the director of national intelligence.

The Terrorist Screening Center, TSC, which has the terrorist screening database, the TSDB -- remember, if you're in government, you can't talk unless you use acronyms. That TSDB is under the control of the FBI. So right away you've got two different government agencies. And the NCTC list where this Umar was, that's sort of like fly paper. Everything gets dumped in there, but you don't necessarily have a systematic approach for going through the information to figure out actually what needs to come to the surface and be cycled out.

GRIFFIN: But Larry, let me just stop you there. So he's on this list. I'm asking you what is the point of having that list if not to just raise suspicion when this guy travels?

JOHNSON: Well, the point of having the list sometimes it seems is just to have the list to say, well, see, we have a list. It is very frustrating. And Americans should be frustrated. If they could simply pull back the curtain and look at the state of what government really is.

When you recognize that this information, this is like that scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where the ark of the covenant is shoved into this government warehouse that has rows and rows of boxes, disappears. That's sort of what happens here.

The system is not the kind of thing that, you know, where people are used in the movies seeing someone sit at the computer, type in a name and it pops up the information and the picture and all the information you need. That unfortunately is not happening here. And so I think we're still even eight years now after the 9/11 attacks, we still have not made a lot of progress at putting together a system where, you know, for example, an airline official can go in and tap into a database to find out should this person be on this flight or not.

GRIFFIN: Earlier this year, an inspector general report in fact found the terrorist screening list was a mess. Terrorists who should have been on it weren't on it. Citizens who were on it, who shouldn't have been on it were still stuck on it.


GRIFFIN: But that -- I remember there were congressional hearings. There was a new director put in charge of it. A guy we tried to have on tonight. But, again, we're seeing either it's not being cleaned up or it's not being used effectively to prevent this guy...


GRIFFIN: ...who should have been screened or patted down, from getting on this flight. JOHNSON: But, Drew, listen, I'll remind you that in December of 1994, Ramzi Yousef, the bomber of the first World Trade Center, he put a bomb on board a plane in the Philippines that blew up. So we've known that terrorists can get bombs on board planes. Then we have no effective security system or technology in place even today that can prevent a person from bringing a bomb on board a plane secreted on their person or in a carry-on luggage. There is no system for that.

And yet 15 years later, we still have done nothing from putting in place a technology that could solve that. So, you know, I've seen all the congressional hand wringing. I see the administration -- and this is a bipartisan failure. Let's understand that. But the American traveling public shouldn't be confused to think that the government actually has a handle on this because they don't.

GRIFFIN: Janet Napolitano, Homeland security, today said that although he was on a list, it was such a low list that -- and I'm not quoting here. But I'll say it appeared there was nothing actionable that can be done.


JOHNSON: Yes. A little bit. Plus remember, I couldn't believe Janet Napolitano, she's on your network earlier saying the system worked. A system that allows a guy on board a plane with an explosive? A system that requires passengers to have to be part of the security team even though they're not trained and not paid?

I mean, that's not a system. That's chaos. And it's shameful really that she would make such a silly claim. She did it. Robert Gibbs did it. We need to stop with the political spin. We need to say, look, let's put in place a security system that actually works. And, unfortunately, we still have not done it when it comes to dealing with the issue of explosives that a person can carry onto a plane and actually build on board an airplane.

GRIFFIN: Final thought, Larry, before I have you go. And, again, a reminder that Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism.

What are we dealing with? Territorial feudism among different screening agencies and different security agencies within government?

JOHNSON: You know, it's a big, big bureaucracy. I wish your listeners, your watchers could go into, for example, just look at the State Department Embassy Computer System, the Internet, there's no standardization. Even within the State Department.

So when you start getting outside of particular agencies, you've run into a problem of lack of standardization. You get an enormous input of information. And yet all this information's coming in like a fire hose filling a rain barrel, but you only have a little spigot at the other end to try to get rid of the water. We've got more water coming in than they can take out, and that inevitably results in confusion and blockage. GRIFFIN: Larry Johnson joining us tonight. Thank you, sir, for the information. We might add that earlier tonight the director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, Timothy Healy, agreed to an interview here on CNN, but shortly afterwards he backed out. Wouldn't appear.

There are so many questions and so many layers to the Detroit terror investigation. We're going to take you to London for an update on what investigators are finding there.

We're also tracking developments in Iran, where political tension has turned into all-out mayhem.


GRIFFIN: The man charged in the Christmas Day bombing attempt on Northwest Flight 253 is out of the hospital in federal prison. Associated Press reporting that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been moved to a facility outside of Detroit. His attorney, Miriam Siefer, says she hasn't had an in-depth conversation with her 23-year-old client, but she says she is planning to fight the government's request for a DNA sample during a hearing. That's tomorrow. Abdulmutallab will not be present for that.

There was another incident today aboard Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Same route, different plane. Emergency crews, though, surrounded the plane after the pilot notified officials of a suspicious passenger who had locked himself in the restroom and became verbally disruptive. After investigating authorities say the man was belligerent, but sick to his stomach. So they gave the all clear. He has now been released from custody.

Florida's head football coach has changed his mind about leaving. Just one day after announcing he was resigning, Urban Meyer says instead he'll be taking an indefinite leave of absence after Friday's Sugar Bowl match-up against Cincinnati. He hopes some time off will help alleviate recurring health problems.

Deaths, arrests, and destruction. The streets of Tehran turn into a battlefield as anti-government rallies grow chaotic. A firsthand account from an Iranian-American.

Plus, the White House weighs in as the fighting rages in Iran. But can strong words from the Obama administration curb the violence?


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Florida's head football coach has changed his mind about leaving. Just one day after announcing he was resigning, Urban Meyer says instead he'll be taking an indefinite leave of absence after Friday's Sugar Bowl match-up against Cincinnati. He hopes some time off will help alleviate recurring health problems.

Deaths, arrests, and destruction. The streets of Tehran turn into a battlefield as anti-government rallies grow chaotic. A firsthand account from an Iranian-American.

Plus, the White House weighs in as the fighting rages in Iran. But can strong words from the Obama administration curb the violence?


GRIFFIN: More now on another top story tonight. The growing unrest gripping Iran's capital. Crowds of demonstrators took to Tehran's streets today, defying a harsh government crackdown. Clashes erupted with security forces, and there are deaths and hundreds of arrests.

We're going to bring in CNN's Reza Sayah. He's standing by here to monitor the situation that you've seen for two days now.

What is going on?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wow. What a weekend, culminating with today. Widespread protests and clashes. And they turn deadly, Drew. According to the French Foreign Ministry, at least eight people were killed. There are conflicting reports. But Iran's own state-run news agencies say five people killed. And there you see some of the graphic video that's coming in to CNN throughout the day. Amateur video being posted on Internet Web sites.

This appears to be one of the victims. We cannot verify if this victim is among the five killed or he's simply injured. But we've covered a lot of protests from afar, of course, since international journalists are for the most part banned from going to Iran.

This is some of the most intense protests we've seen based on witness accounts, based on these videos, and some of the fiercest clashes we've seen. Over and over again, speaking to witnesses, they describe security forces, members of Iran's private militia, the Basij, literally going after protesters by beating them in the head.

There you see another victim. Perhaps the most major development today is among the dead, according to the one opposition Web site, is the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former presidential candidate. According to his Web site and an opposition Web site, his nephew was killed around noon local time on Sunday in Revolution Square. Iran's state-funded press TV does confirm that someone was killed in Revolution Square, but they deny that it was Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew.

GRIFFIN: The video that we're seeing, obviously amateur video, looks like a lot of it was shot on phones, et cetera. Also earlier today I saw actual peaceful demonstrations taking place. They looked more professionally shot stuff. What is the difference between these two mediums that we're seeing coming across?

SAYAH: Well, first let's set the stage for you because today is very significant. Today is Ashura. A major religious holiday in Iran. This is the day when Shiite Muslims in Iran and throughout the world commemorate the martyrdom of the revered profit Imam Hussein. So every year, including today in state-run TV in Iran did show these martyrs go out and engage in self-flagellation.

But there's a lot of symbolism here because the opposition movement is taking on the role of Imam Hussein. A little history lesson here. Legend has it that in the 7th century Imam Hussein only had a dozen followers and he took on the Sunni Khalif Yazid, who had tens of thousands of soldiers and followers, but he fought valiantly.

By the way, that is a sign that bears the name of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. And that again illustrates the intensity of these protests.

GRIFFIN: So this centuries ago is where the division between Shiite and Sunni developed?

SAYAH: And it also created the identity of Shia Islam. An identity where one of the pillars is relishing the role of being the underdog. And what this opposition movement has done is taken the role of the underdog, taken the role of Imam Hussein, while taking on what they describe as this unjust regime.

GRIFFIN: Right. Well, the U.S. government has released a statement on the unrest in Iran. And here's what it says. I want to quote here. "We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights. Governing through fear and violence is never just."

Well, few can forget the young woman who became the face of Iran's anti-government protests last summer. Neda Soltan was gunned down by a sniper's bullet in the streets of Tehran back in June.

CNN's Ivan Watson reports while her life was cut short, her legacy endures.


IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She became the focus of protests around the world -- in New York, London, Berlin, and amid the constant threat of government crackdown in Tehran.

Neda Agha Soltan had been an anonymous female face in the sea of demonstrators protesting the controversial results of Iran's presidential elections. Then while walking with her music teacher she was shot. Her last agonizing moments caught on camera and distributed everywhere on the Internet.

TRITA PARSI, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: She has now become a symbol, a symbol of the struggle of the people who are seeking to find freedom and democracy in Iran. Because she was a bystander. Someone who's just standing on a street corner, and she was brutally, coldheartedly killed by a single bullet to her heart.

WATSON: From Iranian authorities conflicting explanations for the death of the 26-year-old woman who loved music, aerobics, and travel overseas. Security forces possibly mistook her for the sister of a terrorist, one official report said. State media accused opposition leaders of murdering Neda on camera to spread anti-government propaganda. Her mother said authorities refused several requests to hold mourning ceremonies. In a phone interview with CNN, Hajar Rostami called her daughter a martyr for her homeland.

HAJAR ROSTAMI, NEDA'S MOTHER (through translator): I always saw Neda as a martyr. Neda was a martyr for her homeland.

WATSON: Today she remains a powerful symbol of defiance. Technology immortalized Neda Agha Soltan. She is the first of several potent icons, their images a rallying point for Iran's beleaguered opposition.

Ivan Watson, CNN.


GRIFFIN: Reza Sayah will be back with us for more discussion on Iran over the next 20 minutes.

Meantime, I'm joined on the phone now by an Iranian-American who's just returned to the U.S. from Tehran.

Bobak joins me from Berkeley, California. We should say you only want to be referred to because of your first name.

First off, you just did return. When was that? And what was the mood when you left?

BOBAK, IRANIAN-AMERICAN (via telephone): Actually, I returned a few months ago. So I just have to correct you on that. But, basically, I was there during before and after the elections.

GRIFFIN: And your family is still there?


GRIFFIN: What are you hearing tonight?

BOBAK: Basically, some of our relatives have been arrested. They have taken part in the demonstrations. And basically, really a funeral, I would say, the morning rituals. And many of them have been arrested, and we're very concerned about them.

GRIFFIN: Bobak, are these demonstrations growing? It seems like anything that can keep the demonstrations, the movement going is an opportunity for people to come out. But I'm not getting a sense because of our lack of ability to report there, whether or not there is a surge or a growing movement or whether or not this is just murmuring along.

BOBAK: Basically, I can say with assurance that there is a surge and that there are increasingly different walks of life joining the movement. In other words, during the elections they were all over the country, but now we are also seeing demonstrations in Isfahan, in Najafabad and a lot of the central provinces in Iran.

In fact, if you look at those videos really coming in from Gom from last week, you can see really people from all walks of life, young and old, very rural, provincial, as well as quite educated and upper class, middle class. They're all in there. In fact, you can even see clerics taking part. So this is becoming really a very, very inclusive movement as the day goes.

And I think that the government is really losing support from even the conservative and the traditional religious individuals in our society. So this is becoming more wide-ranging by the day.

GRIFFIN: And is this movement in your mind getting enough support from the West, from the U.S., from administrations in the Western world, who many believe should be saying more to promote freedom in Iran?

BOBAK: Well, I think one thing has to be clear, and that is business as usual is gone, basically, in dealing with Iran. This is a genie that we can't put back in the bottle. As far as the nuclear proliferation talks are concerned, the United States has to understand that if it does negotiate with Iran as is, it will be negotiating with a crumbling regime and that the government that will -- even if the government of Iran did accept certain conditions, it will not last simply because it is not in a position to be able to make decisions as well as have binding sort of -- be able to execute them.

So this is really a situation where we're dealing with a very confused and directionless leadership that has turned against itself. A very divided elite. So I think there should really be a pause in terms of negotiations, and there has to be a turn to human rights as well as a turn to the reconfiguration of the political and the power structures in Iran. And unless the United States takes that view, I think it will go down a blind alley.


Bobak, whose family remains in Iran tonight, we wish them the best. And to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

Could the U.S. do more to support demonstrations in Iran, or should the U.S. get involved at all? We're going to explore the question of American's role when we return.


GRIFFIN: We are back now joined by CNN's Reza Sayah, monitoring developments happening over this weekend in Iran. I should mention that you were born, raised in Iran.

I'm wondering tonight, what are your thoughts on where your home country is going?

SAYAH: Well, it's very difficult to say where it's going. But what is a certainty is things have changed. What we're seeing over the past 30 years of the Islamic Republic, what's happening is unprecedented. This is the most significant challenge the Islamic Republic, this hard-line regime, is facing.

Remember, its strength, its power over these past 30 years has been repression, has been intimidation of anyone who's dissented. But you have this opposition movement that despite what's been a brutal and sometimes often deadly crackdown, they haven't been able to stop this opposition movement. And you look at this opposition movement, and you have to ask yourself how. They don't have a true, strong leader. They don't have a structure. They don't have an organization. But somehow they manage to mobilize and move out.

And based on what we're seeing over this weekend, they are gaining in intensity and momentum.

GRIFFIN: Let's bring in Hooshang Amirahmadi, founder and president of the American Iranian Council and a professor at Rutgers University. He's joining us from New York.

Thanks for joining both of us.

Your take on what's happening. You just heard what Reza had to say about this. That this regime is crumbling before our eyes.

HOOSHANG AMIRAHMADI, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN IRANIAN COUNCIL: Well, first, I have been in Iran three times since the last presidential election, last June. And I spent six months over the last two years in Iran looking into the domestic situation. The fact is that generally speaking Iranians are very unhappy with this regime. And particularly for two reasons -- mismanagement of the economy and for the lack of attention to their personal freedom.

And I have to say also that Iranians know three political situations -- dictatorship, revolution, and what I call chaotic democracy. It seems to me that at this stage Iran is entering into the stage of dictatorship, I believe. It's a military dictatorship. I don't believe that a revolution is in the making. But it is obviously -- it is in that process.

What I usually see in Iran, the pattern is that usually dictatorship follows with a revolution, and revolution is -- you know, ends in chaos and then chaos ends with dictatorship. And my hope is that this time the situation is different, that the Iranian people gain democracy.

But the problem here is this. I don't believe that the problem in Iran is democracy or dictatorship. The problem is secularism versus religion. In fact, what we have missed in here and throughout this analysis in this country is that we just completely forgot that that country is -- it has to be secular, that whether a religious government or religious system democracy has no meaning. So the same people who are opposing Ahmadinejad or Khomeini were in power for years. And I don't believe that they are going to go back to democracy as we understand it here.


GRIFFIN: Well, let me -- professor, let me ask you about the video that we saw yesterday. And I'll bring Reza back in as well.

This was significant video of a protest being disrupted by, what, thugs basically.

SAYAH: Well, this wasn't just a protest. This was Mohammed Khatami, the former two-time president of the Islamic Republic, delivering a speech. In the middle of the speech you have what appears to be members of the Basij barging in and chaos ensues.

And Mr. Amirahmadi, I want to ask you this. I want you to tell us what's going through the minds of Iran's hard-line leaders right now. There has to be a question on their mind.

Do you go after these opposition figures like Mohammed Khatami, Mehdi Karoubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi?

Do you arrest them? Or do you stand pat? What's going through the minds of the hard-line leaders right now at this moment?

AMIRAHMADI: Yes. The hard-line leaders at this point, or until now had not taken this movement seriously. And they basically thought this was a family feud. After all, Mousavi, Khatami, Karoubi are members of the same family that made the revolution and sustained this revolution for 30 years. And whatever that has happened over the last 30 years, all of them, less or more are responsible.

So in the beginning it was a family feud, a factional conflict, but increasingly, they're understanding that the factional conflict is spreading into the society, spilling over into the larger community of Iranians and that this fight is not anymore within the religious community but actually the secular forces, the modern forces, the modern middle class, the intellectuals, that the people who really are for better management, professionalism are in the process and trying to make it.

GRIFFIN: All right. Professor, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us from Rutgers tonight.

These clashes come as Iran commemorates the death of Shiite Islam's holiest martyr. What is the significance of this date? And what happens next? Our special coverage continues.


GRIFFIN: Trita Parsi joining us now from Washington, the president of the National Iranian American Council and the author of "Treacherous Alliance."

Let me ask you, Trita, why should Americans care?

TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Of course they should care, because at the end of the day, Iran is a pivotal state in the Middle East. It has an influence in many of the arenas that the United States is involved in, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And, of course, the Iranian people tend to have tremendously positive feelings toward the United States. And now when they're going through all of this, and it can have a significant impact on the U.S., I think it's obvious that Americans should care.

SAYAH: Trita, Reza Sayah here. Thank you for joining us.

I think a lot of people agree the key to what's happening here is the revolutionary guard. Many agree that Iran is no longer ruled by clerics. It's become a militarized state dominated by the revolutionary guard.

Compare the revolutionary guard today to the Shah's Army back in the late '70s. Many people were intimidated by the Shah's Army, but they ended up backing down to the protests. Any chance of that happening with the revolutionary guard?

PARSI: Well, you have very different situations. But one of the things that I was struck by, watching many of these clips on the Internet today, was the number of clips in which the protesters overwhelmed the security forces, and the security forces voluntarily surrendered and joined the protesters. We didn't see that, at least not in these numbers, back in the summer. And it may be an indication that things are changing.

GRIFFIN: Do you want President Obama to actually come out and say something more to support this?

PARSI: I think President Obama came out of the White House this morning and they said something that I thought was very, very thoughtful and positive.

The administration has walked a fine balance in the sense of not getting itself too close to the protesters in a way that could be harmful to them. And at the same time not being so silent so that the protesters may believe that the United States is not with them morally, and the hard-liners may think that they can get away with all of these human rights violations with impunity.

There's been some times in which in my opinion the administration was a little bit too quiet on the human rights side. But I think in the last couple of weeks we've seen how the White House has tried to rectify that and speak more frequently in condemnation of the human rights violations taking place.

GRIFFIN: All right. Thank you for joining us from New York, Trita Parsi.

PARSI: Thank you for having me.

GRIFFIN: We've seen the clashes, the violence, the deaths in Iran in the last 24 hours. What can we expect in the days ahead? We're going to wrap up our discussion with that -- next.


GRIFFIN: We are joined again by Reza Sayah.

Final thoughts, where this is heading. SAYAH: Well, nobody predicted we'd be here. So no one can predict where this is going. But what we can tell you is that these are two sides that are digging in and they're not backing down. Their tactics, their strategies have become more extreme and more radical, which throws out the door any possibility of a political solution. These are not two sides that are going to kiss and make up anytime soon. So for the near future, you can expect to see more pictures like that, more turmoil, more protests, more clashes. And unfortunately more violence in a country that's perhaps the most important nation in the Middle East.

GRIFFIN: And we should say the reason you're getting that kind of amateur video is because CNN is not allowed in.

SAYAH: But we're not going to stop covering.

GRIFFIN: Yes. Thanks very much.

I'm Drew Griffin at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Thanks for joining us in the U.S. and around the world this hour. Have a great week.