Other segments from the episode on July 2, 2009
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The Crackdown In Iran, As Seen From Europe
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. The Iranian governmentâs crackdown
on protestors seems to have stopped the large street demonstrations.
Authorities have warned they wonât tolerate further protests, but Mir
Hossein Mousavi has asked Iranians to continue their protests in a
creative way. Mousavi was President Ahmadinejadâs chief opponent, has
led the opposition, and has called the election illegitimate.
Itâs hard to tell whatâs next, especially with the restrictions the
government has placed on journalists. Many reporters have been arrested,
including one from Newsweek. My guest, Christopher Dickey, is Newsweekâs
Middle East regional editor and Paris bureau chief. Heâs in Paris now
and has been keeping in touch with his contacts in Iran, as well as
watching the European response to the crackdown.
Christopher Dickeyâs latest book is called âSecuring the City: Inside
Americaâs Best Counterterror Force, the NYPD.â Christopher Dickey,
welcome back to FRESH AIR. Since you work for Newsweek, and youâve been
with Newsweek for so long, I want to start by asking you about the
Newsweek reporter who is still under arrest in Iran, Maziar Bahari.
And heâs covered Iran for Newsweek for over a decade. He was arrested
during the protests, and he has confessed, whatever this means â you
know, he confessed, Iâll assume itâs probably under pressure, that his
election coverage was biased in favor of the opposition and that he
admitted that as a journalist heâs part of the capitalist machinery that
gets caught up in revolutionary activities aimed at throwing the
legitimacy of the election in doubt.
What do you know about this statement and about the condition that heâs
Mr.Â CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Newsweekâs Middle East Regional Editor) Almost
nothing. We donât even know if he made that statement. It looked like it
was being videotaped in the press release that was put up on the Web,
but we havenât seen that video. Nobody has seen Maziar.
Heâs been able to talk to his mother twice on the telephone in the last
10 days, but no lawyer has seen him. No member of his family has seen
him, certainly nobody from Newsweek or no one from the Canadian
diplomatic corps has been able to see him.
So we donât know what condition heâs in, we donât know how much duress
heâs under, and we certainly donât know the circumstances under which he
delivered this rather bizarre testimonial to the cause of the
Maziar is a Canadian citizen, a Canadian passport holder, and the
Canadian government has taken the lead in making demarche with the
Iranian government to try and assure that Maziar is being well-treated,
to find out exactly where he is, what if any charges there are against
Iâm afraid they havenât gotten very far, so far. At the same time,
Newsweek, of course, is doing everything it can in terms of publicity,
in terms of making the case that Maziar is what he is, a very fair,
honest and unbiased reporter whose work has been really beyond reproach
for the last 10 years when heâs been with us and whose documentaries
really are excellent views of the complexities and texture of Iranian
They are not political diatribes. Heâs not that kind of person. So we
think that eventually the government in Iran is going to understand it
just doesnât have the kind of person that should be in jail. It has the
kind of person who should be telling the truth about whatâs going on in
Iran from all sides, which is exactly what Maziar has always done.
GROSS: Well, I hope he is well and gets released soon. Letâs look at
where things seem to stand now in Iran. Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was the
chief opponent to Ahmadinejad, has called the election results
illegitimate. Thatâs a recent statement of his, and the former
president, Khatami, issued a recent statement too. What did he have to
Mr.Â DICKEY: He was very tough. He talked about whatâs happened over the
last couple of weeks as a velvet coup. You know, the government likes to
talk about efforts to mount a velvet revolution, what they call a color
revolution like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine.
Khatami has come right back at them. This is a man who was president of
Iran for eight years and has said, no, this is a velvet coup, and he
used very tough language. He said those who were required to protect
peopleâs rights humiliated the people, yet it, the government, speaks of
national reconciliation and peace.
This is very, very tough language. But I have to say, it all sounds a
little bit like a last stand, a last taking of positions before the
lights go out, because it doesnât look as if they can muster the
presence on the streets or the economic or political clout to overturn
GROSS: So you think itâs just a way of saying weâre right and youâre
wrong, we still believe it, weâre not giving in. But it doesnât
necessarily mean thereâs much life left in the movement.
Mr.Â DICKEY: Iâd say thatâs a pretty fair description of the situation. I
donât think that they can stand up against the force of the
revolutionary guards and of the concerted power of the Basij and the
intelligence ministry, the supreme leader and President Ahmadinejad.
They just â you know, youâve seen that the streets have calmed, that
order has been restored. The protests have died down, and there are
efforts now to find other forms of protest, a general strike, these
kinds of things. But I think itâs unlikely that they can continue or
rebuild, in fact, the momentum that they had a week or a little more
than a week ago.
GROSS: Now, I read that Mousavi called for a strike. What do you know
Mr.Â DICKEY: Not much, only that he called for one. I think weâll have to
see if the country shuts down. I personally donât expect to see that
happen, but if it does, then we will enter yet another phase in a saga
that has indeed been full of surprises.
I think none of us could have predicted two weeks ago even that we would
have seen so much upheaval, so many twists and turns in this situation,
so much public infighting among the clergy.
You know, the assumption was always that you had different candidates
and different players and they had different rivalries, but basically
they were all within the system.
Now you have people who were formerly very much part of the system,
albeit on a reformist or liberal wing of it, who are challenging the
system itself, who are saying you know, your Islamic revolution - that
is, Khameneiâs and Ahmadinejadâs, is not our Islamic revolution, and
this is a fight about what direction itâs going to take. Thatâs really,
really very amazing. But the reformists seem to me to be in a
fundamentally weak position.
They donât have strong enough leadership, and they certainly donât have
the power of force of arms that exists with the government.
GROSS: So you think that the reformists are looking for an alteration of
the Islamic state, not for an alternative to an Islamic state.
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, thatâs what theyâre saying, but the way revolutions
work, they usually start out with attempts at evolutionary change that
is frustrated, and then that becomes more and more revolutionary, and
suddenly the demands â go back to the French Revolution. Originally
there was no effort to overthrow the monarchy, but somehow as the
process of revolution progressed, the monarch became superfluous and
then an obstacle to the change that was wanted by the revolutionaries.
Thatâs a classic pattern of revolution, and that could be the pattern in
Iran if the movement that we say 10 days ago carried forward, but I
think it has been stopped.
Everybody I have talked to in Tehran over the last few days on the
telephone has said basically this is Custerâs last stand. This is, you
know, a final gesture, but this is not â this movement will to some
extent go underground. It will simmer. People probably, certainly wonât
forget it, but it wonât be able to regain any kind of momentum anytime
in the near future.
GROSS: Is there leadership of the protests? I know â you know, Mousavi
has called for a strike. Mousavi contested the election, but are there
people actually strategizing how to get people together and what the
action should be?
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, there could be, but we donât know what shape that
leadership has. One of the things that worries the government is that
the reformers, the reformist movement, is made up of people who were
really the activists and organizers and revolutionaries who made the
1978-â79 revolution happen.
Now, they are 30 years older. Theyâre no longer 20-year-old kids out in
the street. Theyâre middle-aged men and in a few cases women, but they
do know what the dynamics are. They do know how this works. They know
about clandestine organization, and they know how to get people out on
the streets under certain circumstances. But they also are facing a much
more resolute antagonist in the form of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei than
they were facing in the shah in his final days.
So all of thatâs at play. The regime thinks these people can be
dangerous, but for the moment we havenât seen that they have the ability
to organize a sustained movement in todayâs world, in todayâs Iran.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Christopher Dickey. Heâs
Middle East regional editor for Newsweek. Letâs take a short break here,
and then weâll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Christopher Dickey. He is
the Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for Newsweek.
Christopher Dickey, youâre speaking to us from Paris, where youâre
The European Union is considering withdrawing the ambassadors of all 27
of its member nations in protest of the arrest of British embassy
workers. Nine were arrested, eight have been released, one remains in
detention. What would that mean if the European Union withdrew all of
its ambassadors from Iran?
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, it would be a strong gesture, but it would also tend
to create a situation where we know even less about whatâs going on in
Iran than we do now, and the question would be how long would they keep
those ambassadors out of Iran?
Part of what the Iranian government is doing right now is asserting its
independence from the rest of the world. This is a line that
Ahmadinejad, the president, has pushed very strongly, that Ayatollah
Khamenei has pushed very strongly, that the world will come to us
Iranians eventually, almost no matter what. And so I think they are
perfectly willing and able to weather the withdrawal of even all of the
European Union ambassadors, and probably the European Union will be
making its own situation more difficult. But I can understand why
European officials would feel that they need to make some sort of
gesture, given the arrest of the local staff of the British embassy.
GROSS: Why would it make the situation for the European Union more
difficult if it withdrew its ambassadors to Iran?
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, you know, itâs always a problem when you withdraw
diplomatic representation, when you withdraw the people who are on the
ground trying to figure out whatâs going on in a country, and Iran is
one of the most complicated and difficult to understand countries in the
I was talking to former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker the other day.
He started his career serving in Iran, and he says, look, we havenât
been there for 30 years, and itâs hard to know whatâs going on when
youâre on the ground. So second-guessing whatâs happening from afar is
that much more difficult. And if you take your ambassador out, and if
you start to pare back your embassy staff, eventually you are blinding
yourself to whatever events are going on.
Now, if you have a situation where your embassy tried to work and
theyâre just getting arrested and seem to enjoy no immunity whatsoever,
well, maybe this is the only thing you can do. But itâs never, in
principle, a good idea to blind yourself to events in a country thatâs
as important as Iran.
GROSS: Donât some of the members of the EU have trade relations with
Mr.Â DICKEY: Lots of them have trade relations with Iran. Most of them, I
think, have trade relations with Iran, and some have quite good
relations with Iran. Traditionally, Germany is one of Iranâs biggest
trading partners. Italy has a lot of commerce with Iran.
So itâs definitely not a question of these are thin little diplomatic
representations that are now being withdrawn. Thereâs a lot of
representation in Tehran, and there has been for a long time a lot of
commercial and diplomatic intercourse between Tehran and many European
GROSS: So for the countries that have trade relations with Iran, if they
withdrew their ambassadors, would they continue to trade anyway?
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, itâs on the question of trade relations that the real
â the rubber meets the road, as it were. If we start to see Iranâs major
trading partners starting to put economic pressure on Iran, then I think
that starts to be some kind of effective diplomatic and economic move.
That begins to have some teeth in it. But we havenât really seen that,
and Iran knows that it also has alternatives.
As long as it can turn to China, as long as it can turn to Russia, it
will be able to undermine the European position, even of its major
trading partners, and as long as oil prices continue to go back up, the
Iranian government is going to feel protected.
I think, you know, traditionally in Iran over the last several years,
when oil prices have been very low, you saw a rise of the reform
movement, and when oil prices have gone up, you saw the hard-liners in
ascendency because they could basically give lots of money to the people
- just distribute the oil wealth. and as we see the oil wealth
increasing again, weâre going to see the hard-liners in a stronger
position, because, again, they will think the world will come to them,
and they are probably right.
GROSS: There was a time when the United States was the great Satan in
Iran, but it seems like maybe weâve been replaced by the British. The
British have â are now officially, quote, âthe most treacherous of
enemies.â And I thinkâ¦
Mr.Â DICKEY: But the Iranians have believed that for a very long time.
Thatâs not new.
Mr.Â DICKEY: Absolutely. It goes back to the 19th century and the great
game between Britain and Russia and Iran and all the duplicity and
treachery that took place and the British efforts to take over Iranian
oil in the early part of the 20th century and support for dictators and
shahs and coups and all kinds of things.
You know, the Americans are usually blamed for the coup in 1953 that
overthrew the Mossaddeq government and put the shah back on the throne,
but in fact the British played a vital role in that as well.
There is an Iranian proverb thatâs repeated a lot these days, that if
you trip over a stone, the British put it there, and that is the way
You know, thereâs - historical grievances run very deep in that part of
the world. And actually one of the ironies of Iran is that if you go
there as an American, you discover very quickly that Iranians tend to
like Americans. They may stand around in small groups in front of
television cameras and shout death to America, but when youâre just on
the street and just talking to people, you get a very friendly
The people the Iranians traditionally mistrust are the British, and it
has to be said also, the Russians, also dating back to the days of the
GROSS: Now, President Obama has spoken of trying to begin some kind of
discussion with Iran, you know, about the nuclear program, and Iâm
wondering if you think thereâs any chance that that will go forward if
the government wins over the protestors, and it looks like things are
heading in that direction.
Mr.Â DICKEY: I think that we can say that the government has won over the
protestors. I think that that movement is essentially at an end, at
least as we saw it in the first days after the election results were
announced, and I think the Obama administration has really got a huge
problem in dealing with this government.
It is a government that has asserted its power, that is asserting its -
not only its independence but that wants to confront the West. This
government is looking for legitimacy now. Its legitimacy was challenged
by the masses of people in the streets. Its legitimacy has been
challenged by all those people who say that the elections were rigged.
Its legitimacy is challenged by its resorting to force to deal with this
So how is it going to regain its legitimacy? Well, one way to do that is
to just keep insisting the elections were not rigged, the people love
us, everything is fine. But the other way to get legitimacy is to show
that the rest of the world comes to your door and wants to negotiate
with you. And the decision, the first decision that the Obama
administration is going to have to make is whether it thinks those
negotiations are so important that it is going to be a party to the
legitimizing of this government, and I donât think theyâve sorted that
one out in Washington.
GROSS: So if you talk, you legitimize the government, and if you donât
talk, you have other problems.
Mr.Â DICKEY: Thatâs right. If you donât talk, then the Iranians continue
to pursue their nuclear program. You have no - really no hope of
stopping them, unless you endorse military action, and for many, many
reasons that would be neither practical nor wise. So ultimately you have
to talk to them, and they know that. Thatâs the box that the Obama
administration finds itself in right now, and I think ultimately it will
talk to this government.
GROSS: Now, youâve written that dictators around the world are watching
Iran for lessons learned. Why is what happens in Iran important to Arab
Mr.Â DICKEY: Well, I think whatâs important is the whole question of
passive resistance and whether that can succeed and be revived and keep
pushing, whether in the 21st century you can see the kinds of movements
that, for instance, Gandhi represented in India or that Martin Luther
King, Jr. represented in the United States, of powerful non-violent
protest that changes the face of government and changes the laws of the
land, changes the givens in which everybody operates. And thereâs very
little record of that in the Middle East.
So one of the things that was striking about this is that suddenly,
almost out of the blue, it seemed, you had these popular protests going
on massively in the streets of Tehran in the days immediately after the
elections, or the election results were announced, and that seemed like
a new paradigm.
If you had seen that continue and seen the government essentially cede
more and more space to the protestors until eventually the protestors
had the upper hand, that would have worried a lot of people, I think, in
the Arab world, particularly in a place like Egypt, for instance, where
you have an autocracy thatâs been in power for a long time.
President Mubarak is now a very old man whoâs been in power since 1981.
You have the military establishment there thatâs been in power since the
early 1950s. Could it stand up to mass movements, to this educated,
young people, from universities, holding down jobs, who go out in the
streets and say weâre mad as hell, weâre not going to take it anymore?
And the answer is, it would be really tough. It would be really tough
without essentially resorting to draconian and violent means of
containing those movements, which is what happened in Iran.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey will be back in the second half of the show.
Heâs Newsweekâs Middle East regional editor and Paris bureau chief. His
latest book is called âSecuring the City: Inside Americaâs Best
Counterterror Force, the NYPD.â Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross, back with Christopher Dickey,
Newsweek's Middle East regional editor and Paris bureau chief. In
Newsweek online, Dickey writes the "Shadowland" column about the Middle
East counterterrorism and espionage. Weâre talking about Iran. He's
joining us from Paris.
You know, certainly in the United States in the past couple of weeks
weâve seen a lot of videos sent by, you know, Twitter and other social
network sites and - of demonstrations in the streets of Iran. And, of
course, the question is always, can you trust everything that you see?
Are they all of scenes that they purport to being showing? What is the
agenda of the people sending the images and so on? And I'm wondering if
youâve been having to, you know, as a journalist, make decisions about
which images you're going to trust and which you're not.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Middle East regional editor, Newsweek):
Absolutely. And I think none of them are that trustworthy. If you see a
long shot of an enormous crowd walking through the middle of Tehran,
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DICKEY: That I think we can rely on. And those were the kinds of
shots that I think that first interested people in the immediacy of that
kind of coverage. But once you get down to little video - little blurry
video clips of shooting incidents or confrontations between the
Basij(ph) and the protestors or the protestors and the police, itâs very
hard to judge the context. In fact, itâs impossible to judge the context
in which those were shot. And I think that they - none of them should be
taken at face value.
GROSS: What about the most famous of all the images that have come out
of Iran, and that is of Neda, the young woman who was shot and died and
has become kind of the symbol of the opposition movement...
Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, horrifying.
GROSS: ...how do you interpret what youâve seen?
Mr. DICKEY: Well...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DICKEY: ...the fact that she's shot, the fact that she dies is
unassailable, and that it happened in the midst of the protest is also
unquestionable. Who shot her? I don't know. People who were there or say
they were there say that she was shot by a member of the Basij. Why a
member of the Basij would just decide to shoot her is unclear. That
these guys are rough, that theyâre thugs, that they beat people up, that
sometimes they shoot people and kill them? Yes. Why did they kill her?
Hard to know. Was she shot by another protestor? Seems implausible. But
you canât know. You can't know and ultimately, what these become tests
of faith for people who commented on this and you see it all the time.
It is - for the opposition now, it would be heresy to raise any question
that Neda was killed by the Basij. And for the government it is heresy
to say that the Basij could possibly have killed her. So ultimately we
just donât know except that a, you know, a young woman was cut down in
the prime of her life and the whole world had an opportunity to watch
that horrifying moment when somebody actually dies in front of your
GROSS: Youâve written something that really surprised me. You wrote that
privately American officials say there are indications of fraud in the
election, but they believe Ahmadinejad would've won anyways. And you
write, itâs ironic that the greatest internal threat to the regime in
its entire 30 years may have been provoked by rulers who felt they had
to steal an election they had already won. And then I was really
surprised to read that Obama administration officials told you that they
Mr. DICKEY: Well, some of them have...
GROSS: It's better if Ahmadinejad would've won.
Mr. DICKEY: It has to be said that some of them have dialed back on that
a little bit...
GROSS: Oh, okay.
Mr. DICKEY: ...since I was reporting that story. But I think it's a very
real possibility that Ahmadinejad might have won if not in the first
round, in the second round. I think there's now a kind of a conventional
wisdom because itâs what people what to believe that he didn't have a
chance. And that instead of winning by 63 percent, he really would've
lost by 63 percent. Well, I'm not sure how you know that. There is a
very large population that was not out on the streets protesting against
Ahmadinejad. There is a very large population of Iran that is rural and
also urban population that enjoyed his handouts over the last several -
last four years, and including, and especially the last few months.
If ever there was a candidate who set out to buy votes, this was the
man. And whoâs to say it didn't work? People basically have not
contested, some people have, but very few people have contested his win
four years ago. So I'm not telling you that he won fair and square. I
think the fraud was about trying to show they had this massive
unassailable mandate. And whether Ahmadinejad might have won fair and
square or not is - that debate is always going to rely not on facts but
on people's opinions of the regime.
GROSS: When you talk about Ahmadinejad buying votes, what do you mean?
Mr. DICKEY: He had these bonuses that were handed out to government
employees, to all kinds of people. Basically Iran has enjoyed, like
every other oil producer over the last few years until a little less
than a year ago, huge oil prices. Huge increases in oil prices. Prices
much, much, much higher than anything that could've been expected when
Ahmadinejad came to power four years ago. And as that money rolled in,
he made sure that it rolled out again, often basically in terms of cash
stipends. And as a result, a lot of people felt he was helping them out.
Now, the bad news was it created inflation that has all the impacts that
we know that inflation has. People suddenly found that all that money
they were getting wasn't buying as much as it used to. But the immediate
effect is to say, thank you Mr. Ahmadinejad, for giving me this money.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey, good to talk with you again. Thank you very
Mr. DICKEY: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East regional editor and
Paris bureau chief. Has latest book is called "Securing the City: Inside
Americaâs Best Counterterror Force â The NYPD." He spoke to us from
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Roya Hakakian: An Iranian-American Perspective
TERRY GROSS, host:
GROSS: Roya Hakakian identifies with the protestors in Iran. She
remembers protesting against the Shah. In 2004, she published a memoir
about growing up Jewish in revolutionary Iran called "Journey from the
Land of No." She left the country with her parents in 1984 at the age of
18 and now lives in the U.S. She's a founding member of Iran Human
Rights Documentation Center, serves on the board of Refugees
International, and is a fellow at Yale University's Whitney Humanity
Center. Hakakian initiated last weekend's prayer campaign in memory of
Neda Soltani, the young Iranian woman who, in death, became a symbol of
the protest movement.
Roya Hakakian, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you think that the protest
movement in Iran is over? Has the government succeeded in repressing it
or do you think itâs just going to enter a new phase?
Ms. ROYA HAKAKIAN (Founding member, Iran Human Rights Documentation
Center): I don't think the protests are over. And I think what really
happened during these last elections in Iran is that the nation crossed
a boundary and that boundary was the one that had never been crossed
before. There was always a sense of hope about wanting to make
comprises, make incremental changes, find ways of negotiating with those
in power in Iran. And I think with this round of elections, with the
responses from the Supreme Leader, that people in Iran have come to the
conclusion that those steps that they had hoped to take to make a soft
transition to change in Iran are no longer possible. So I donât expect
for the protests to go away. I donât anybody does. I just think that the
movement will in the future weeks be retooling itself to come up with
new ingenious ways to fight the system.
GROSS: Like what? What are some ingenious ways that you think are
possible fighting the system?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well, I think it will adopt the format that a lot of other
covert movements have adopted in the past and historically, even in Iran
against the Shah. You know, the 1978 revolution came out of about two or
three decades of protests against the Shah. And I think it took a very,
very long time for those things to come to a head as they manifested
themselves in 1978. So it is possible that there would be a return to
that era and you know those acts of protest and demonstration can take a
variety of shapes and forms. For instance, it's very likely that we will
see a lot of labor strikes. I think people will retreat to their homes
and become defiant and those acts of defiance will manifest themselves
in a variety of ways.
For instance, every day now I get Facebook postings from Iran and
recordings of people on their rooftops shouting, Alah-o-Akbar or God is
great. And I think people are doing this sort of as a national diary to
record what's happening. And I think posting these things on a daily
basis serves as a reminder to all of us that the movement is ongoing.
GROSS: What does it mean to go to your rooftop and shout God is great?
How does that register as a protest? I mean you're dealing with a
clerical government who'd be shouting God is great too. So where is the
protest on shouting that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well that's the beauty of it. The nation is trying to
harken back to the images, the icons, everything that was extremely
symbolic and very meaningful to the movement in 1978 and 1979. Whether
this is organized or thought out, I'm not certain. But what is naturally
happening spontaneously among people in Iran is that they're trying to
connect this to 1978 and say, we are the same nation and we are once
again oppressed and we once again want to get rid of our dictators. And
therefore, we will be using the very same symbols, the very same
imagery, the very same actions that helped us overthrow the previous
dictator. So going off to the rooftops is going back to the memories and
the history of 1978, when people in Iran, in December of 1978, I was 12.
You know, I went to my rooftop because Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered
people to go to their rooftops and in a completely non-violent fashion
just shout for 10 minutes, God is great or Alah-o-Akbar, in pitch dark.
And I canât tell you Terry, it was one of the most staggering
experiences of my entire life to be standing on a rooftop and listening
to this sound that came from nowhere because it was so dark, and yet it
was so overpowering.
GROSS: Do you feel that in some ways the people of Iran, particularly
the younger people grew up, you know, in a quote, "revolutionary time"
and the revolution was celebrated and taught and in that sense people
were taught how to protest a right that is now being denied to them?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Precisely. That's why I think this is such a tough
position for the regime to be in because they taught this revolution to
us even when I was in high school in Iran, every day in a variety of
ways. This was part of our official textbooks. You know, it was a big
part of our history. I mean, Iran has a history of 2,500 years and yet,
you know, the overthrow of the Shah was probably five chapters in a 12
chapter history book. They really drilled it into us and we really
embraced it, especially the youth in Iran, as a proud moment in our
history when we together as one had gotten rid of a dictator. And
because they drilled in all those lessons to us so consistently, we in a
way were educated by them. Or I should say the nation has been educated
by the very people who now have to deal with young people on the streets
who are trying to overthrow them using the same strategies and tactics.
GROSS: Well, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to be sworn in in late July or
early August, so like once he's in office itâs no longer about
contesting the elections, so the protests seem like they have to take on
a different goal.
Ms. HAKAKIAN: They already have. There have been several smaller
demonstrations throughout Iran, especially Tehran, in the past week when
the millions and millions have gone away to their homes and are probably
thinking through other acts. I have received YouTube installments of,
you know, what looks like street skirmishes, you know, 20 protesters
coming out of the subway chanting and protesting and then fading away.
On the other hand, the regime, of course, will not be quiet and they
have to deal with 2,000 - 3,000 people that they have sitting in prisons
at the moment.
It seems like in the past day or two they have executed a few. I saw the
news of about six people being hung yesterday in Mashhad. And I think
these acts, which I expect to be coming forth, will serve to inflame the
public even further. And whatâs interesting for me to watch is that this
movement has made a commitment to do what the movement against the shah
hadnât made a commitment to do, which is to remain nonviolent. This is
probably one of the most moving experiences that I have had watching
Iran in the past 30 years.
I have seen several video installments of people who have been
confronted by the members of the revolutionary guards who have come to
attack them. And there have been protesters on the streets who have made
a human ring around these five or six revolutionary guard members to
protect them from the wrath of the crowd. This, I think, more than
anything shows that this population, this movement, is committed to
remaining nonviolent and gaining whatever it is that itâs trying to
through peaceful means.
GROSS: Where do you think that comes from, that nonviolent resistance -
certainly not from the 1979 revolution?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: I think precisely because the 1979 revolution led to such
a terrible disaster that people are trying do everything possible to
avoid another experience like that. And I think, you know, there are
instances that Iranians have embraced - again, because of the massive
propaganda by the regime - of various movements throughout the world.
For instance, you know, the apartheid experience in South Africa, we
learned a great deal about Nelson Mandela when we were in schools in
Iran. I remember the only great American leader that I was ever taught
about was Martin Luther King when I was a student in Iran in high
So, itâs ironic that the regime itself has embraced and implemented, in
Iranian education â post-revolutionary education, these important
figures, figures to be beheld by Iranians, you know, Nelson Mandela,
Martin Luther King. And I think those lessons are now enlightening the
GROSS: If youâre just joining us my guest is Roya Hakakian. Sheâs a
founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She
serves on the Board of Refugees International. She grew up in Iran and
left as a teenager with her family for the United States. She also wrote
a memoir few years ago about growing up in revolutionary Iran called
âJourney from the Land of No.â Letâs take a short break here and then
weâll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us my guest is Roya Hakakian. Sheâs a
founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She
serves on the Board of Refugees International. She initiated a prayer
campaign on behalf of Neda Soltani(ph), the young Iranian woman who was
killed during the protests. She also, a few years ago, wrote a memoir
about growing up in revolutionary Iran called âJourney from the Land of
No.â She and her family left Iran for the United States when she was 18.
Women have been very active in this protest in Iran. Do you see that as,
in part, you know, protest against the suppression of women in Iran?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Absolutely. But whatâs even more interesting to me is that
people find that surprising. The most vibrant, the most serious, the
strongest opposition that the Iranian regime has ever faced in the past
30 years has been the opposition to its existence by the Iranian women.
Itâs an opposition that has been unfolding itself from the very early
days of the revolution. Because, you know, on March 8th of 1979, which
was, you know, barely a month after the Iranian revolution had taken
hold on the Ayatollah had returned, the Iranian women took to the
streets and staged a massive march against a decree that the Ayatollah
had issued to implement the Islamic dress code, meaning to bring back
the veil. Now, a lot of people forget that Iranian women had
historically had the right to dress code. In other words, at the time
when I was growing up, some women where under the veil and others were
not. Women chose how they wanted to dress and went about it in that way.
But on March 8th, women took the streets to demonstrate against
Ayatollahâs decree to bring back the veil and make it mandatory. And,
you know, itâs an opposition that has been organizing, strategizing and
thinking through its demands very seriously at least for the last 10
years. So, I think itâs no surprise that we see women in the forefront
of this movement and it is really the women that have provided the
engine, the organization know-how for the pre-election campaign.
GROSS: Neda Soltani(ph) became a symbol of the protest movement, you
know, a young Iranian woman who was killed while protesting. And a lot
of people have noted how different she is as a symbol from the bearded
middle-aged men of the 1979 revolution. You initiated a prayer campaign
on her behalf - was it last weekend, two weekends ago?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Last weekend.
GROSS: Last weekend.
Ms. HAKAKIAN: And weâre hoping to bring everybody together for the 40th
day of her death.
GROSS: So, what did she mean to you? You were 18 when you left Iran. You
were 12 when you protested against the shah. So what does seeing her
face mean to you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAKAKIAN: You know, I wrote a very bad poem which I have kept on my
laptop and havenât shown to anyone. But, the poem really was about
seeing myself in Neda. I think I have no doubt that if I were in Iran
now, I would be on the streets. Because when I was 12, I was on the
streets. I have no doubt that I would be protesting along with the
women, with the others who are on the streets. And I have no doubt that
I could have died too. I mean, oftentimes when I think about the stupid
things that I did when I was a teenager in Iran, the idea that I
survived my stupidity, the idea that I encouraged so much danger and yet
somehow survived, staggers me.
So, I think sheâs the face of the Iranian movement, but not just the
current one, the one that begun in 1979. I think the majority of the
secular Iranians who joined that revolution, joined because they were
hoping to have a democracy in Iran, to have an egalitarian rule and that
hope still survives and I think no one better than Neda captures that
hope that has yet to come to fruition.
GROSS: So, now that youâve been living in the United States since 1984,
Ms. HAKAKIAN: Since 1985.
GROSS: Since 1985, thank you. Youâve been trying your best to keep in
touch with people in Iran. And Americans are seeing a different side of
Iranians now. Theyâre not chanting death to America. So, what are you
hoping that Americans are learning about Iran as they try to keep track
of whatâs happening there now?
Ms. HAKAKIAN: The Iran that Americans have been seeing in the past three
weeks is the Iran that Iâve always known, is an Iran that has wanted
freedom and equality. And I think what always devastated me, because Iâm
also an American now, was what a terrible view we, as Americans, held of
Iran, especially the Iran that I knew. And I always wanted to somehow
help settle this misunderstanding, that we were the victims of the very
regime, of the very characters, who were burning, you know, the American
flags on the streets of Tehran or, you know, burning the effigies of
Uncle Sam. So, I think I hope that this latest movement has helped
people see Iran in the way that I know Iran.
And I hope that we, as Americans, come to embrace whatâs happening in
Iran today, as a universal plight. Because I see it as, you know, as a
situation which is basically a gender apartheid and we as global
citizens wouldnât want to be living in an era where gender apartheid -
where apartheid of any kind - is an existence.
GROSS: Roya Hakakian, thank you very much for talking with us. I really
appreciate it. Be well.
Ms. HAKAKIAN: I was delighted to be with you, thank you.
GROSS: Roya Hakakian is the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights
Documentation Center and is a fellow at Yale Universityâs Whitney
Humanities Center. Weâve invited her back next week to talk about her
memoir âJourney from the Land of No.â Itâs about growing up Jewish in
revolutionary Iran. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web
site, freshair.npr.org. Iâm Terry Gross.
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