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NPR asks Iran's foreign minister about anti-government protests and global relations


We have a rare opportunity today to put questions to one of Iran's most senior officials. We've just walked up to the gates of the foreign ministry, this big, yellow compound - yellow brick compound in central Tehran. We have had so many questions on the ground here in Iran about the anti-government protests that have rocked this country. Hundreds of people have been killed. We also have questions about Iran's relations with the rest of the world. And today, Iran's top diplomat - that is the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has agreed to take our questions.

Once inside, we climbed from one waiting area to the next and finally settled inside a cavernous meeting room, a giant map of Iran and the region above us. What you are about to hear is Amir-Abdollahian speaking through an interpreter. We have edited for concision and clarity. We have not internally edited his answers.

I'll start with the news. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has announced he is pardoning tens of thousands of people arrested in the anti-government protests. Why, and why now?

HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, at this very outset, allow me to point out that when you say tens of thousands have been detained, well, this is not exactly accurate, and this I say categorically. First of all, no student whatsoever was detained at the universities or premises of the universities during the riots. In fact, those who were detained were people who played a role in the riots on the streets. That being said, hundreds were carried away. And on that basis, they acted in riots. On the occasion of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, these people - hundreds of people who have been detained - were pardoned. The supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution pays special attention to the issue of clemency and mercy. And, therefore, the decree is to release all these detainees, save for those who have committed murder or other serious crimes.

KELLY: The number that I cited, tens of thousands of people being pardoned, is the one that was cited by Iranian state media. And the number of thousands of protesters being detained is not mine. That is coming from human rights groups and from the United Nations, which is estimating that thousands of people here have been detained since September. Hundreds of people have been killed and four people executed.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) I guess we see some sort of overstatement in these figures, even if it has been said by human rights groups. The number of those killed during the riots have also been played up. You see something important played out during the riots. Despite high tension during the riots, the police were not allowed to carry firearms. However, American and Israeli armament came through from some of our neighboring countries with little stability. Now, what they did was to wreak havoc amongst the mobs and masses and, in fact, resorted to the armament in question.

KELLY: I want to follow up on what you're saying about weapons and the world that the U.S. - you are alleging - played. But I - it strikes me that we are citing different numbers of what happened - of how many were killed. And it strikes me that part of the challenge may be that journalists have not been able to freely cover these protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 93 journalists have been detained in Iran. That is as of January. Another journalist, Elnaz Mohammadi, was arrested on Sunday. Why are journalists here in Iran being prevented from doing their jobs?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) We cannot confirm the detention of journalists in Iran. It's very easy to relabel the person who has been detained. You could, at any moment, call that person in question a defendant of human rights, a journalist, among others.

KELLY: Ninety-three and counting? That's a lot.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) No journalist was detained during riots. You see, just two weeks ago, something happened in Iran. A scammer was to flee Iran. What he did, in order to help his escape, was to post videos on social media saying that - claiming that he was a protester, that he was subjected to torture. But in fact, he was a scammer and a fraudulent person. And at the end of the day, it turned out that he was threatened. He was arrested by the police. You see, the West has carefully and meticulously targeted the riots. Allow me to ask this question to you. You see, there was a lot of maneuver on Mahsa Amini by Western media. But when it comes to Shireen Abu Akleh, did they really cover her?

KELLY: Forgive me. Forgive me, but...

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Non-English language spoken).


AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) She was...

KELLY: ...If I may, I will ask the questions.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) ...Killed by these rioting police.

KELLY: I will ask the questions.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) It is not...

KELLY: And I will just - to end the questioning about journalists, I will say journalists who have been detained and now released on bond are confirming that they are journalists and they were detained in these protests. But let me - you mentioned the role that you believe the U.S. has played. In our time in Iran, we have interviewed many people now and asked them why they are angry. They cite repression. They cite inequality. They cite economic mismanagement. We asked one young man - who do you blame for your problems? He said, the regime - your government - not the United States. To the young man who blames the regime for his problems, you say what?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) First of all, it's not a regime in Iran. We have a sovereign, legitimate and legal government. And therefore, I would like to urge that you also use the correct words.

KELLY: I was quoting someone directly who was speaking to me.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) But the people in Iran don't speak like that. Anyway, we admit that there are problems in Iran, just like elsewhere in the world. Back in September, when I was New York, I happened to have the opportunity to roam about a little bit in New York and see the underground stations past midnight. I, in fact, talked to some of the citizens. And the responses I got from American nationals were worse than the response that you got from that Iranian man. And therefore, it pretty much depends on which population sample you choose for your information. This constitutes an important part of democracy in Iran. People can freely voice their ideas.


KELLY: Part one of our conversation here in Tehran with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian - he is the foreign minister of Iran. Tomorrow, we push him on whether people in Iran can freely voice their ideas.


KELLY: People told us this repeatedly - when we asked to interview them, they pointed up and pointed at cameras. They're watching. They're watching. They're watching.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHAIN: (Through interpreter) Then you could interview them on a blind spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.