IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Before anniversary of mass protests, Iran’s leader expresses no regrets

Human rights groups say Iranian authorities have rounded up activists in advance of the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on Saturday.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

Nearly a year after mass protests erupted in Iran, the country’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, defended his government’s response to the demonstrations in an interview with NBC News, and warned that those who try to sow instability in the Islamic Republic would pay a “big cost.”

In his first interview with a Western news organization since the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody triggered public outrage last year, Raisi told NBC News’ Lester Holt that the unrest was allegedly fueled by U.S. and European powers and that security forces had treated protesters in a “peaceful” manner.

Asked about human rights reports that Iran was seeking to silence activists in advance of Saturday, the first anniversary of Amini’s death, Raisi said that his government was ready to listen to genuine protesters but would not tolerate attempts to destabilize the country.

“You should be assured that the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been ready to listen to (the) words of protesters. On any issue, we are all ears,” he said through a government translator.  

“And those who intend to abuse Madam Amini’s name, under this pretext to be an agent of foreigners to create this instability in the country, we know what ... would happen to them. And they know that endangering the security of people and (the) security of society will create a big cost."

Saturday will be a year since Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iran’s Kurdish region, died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police for allegedly failing to comply with the country’s mandatory Islamic dress code.

Amini’s death on Sept. 16, 2022, triggered a wave of protests across the country that mushroomed into the largest challenge to the theocratic regime since its founding in 1979. The protesters chanted “Woman, life, freedom,” as well as anti-regime slogans, including “Death to the dictator,” and targeted symbols of the Islamic Republic. Women burned their head scarves in defiance of laws that require women to cover their hair and their bodies.

After mass arrests and a violent crackdown that killed hundreds of people, the protests eventually faded over several months. Human rights groups say that security forces killed more than 500 people, including dozens of teenagers and children, and that tens of thousands of people were arrested.

Raisi, however, said the security forces did their best to treat demonstrators in a peaceful way and differentiated between genuine protesters and those using violence to attack the government or police.

Iranians who protest, “they are free,” he said. “But those who are going to undermine the security, we did not allow that. “

He added that “those who carried out terror, who have killed individuals, who have attacked police and security forces, who had made some destruction in the country, of course we did not have mercy upon them.”

Raisi then claimed that there was still “freedom of speech” in Iran and “freedom of writing and press,” and that “in our statements, in our position, you can see everybody in the country is free to make their statements.”

Human rights advocates, U.N. monitors and press freedom groups say Iranian officials severely restricted Internet access after the protests started, blocked social media apps, arrested journalists and sought to punish any public criticism of the government.

Raisi denied those charges and asserted that the United States and some European countries had tried to exploit Amini’s death to undermine Iran’s government.

“It was a hybrid war and a cognitive war. It was a political war. It was an economic war, a media war, and a psychological war against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said. “They did not care about Madam Amini. “

He added: “This is an American approach. They destabilize the country under the pretext of human rights.”

Amini’s family said she died from blows to the head and limbs, but government officials said she died from a pre-existing medical condition.

Raisi called Amini’s death “an incident” and that his government investigated the case quickly and thoroughly. “The Islamic Republic of Iran responded swiftly and followed the issue. In order to probe into the incident, I personally myself had a meeting with the family of Madam Amini."

In the aftermath of the protests, which faded earlier this year, many women in Iranian cities continue to flout laws that mandate wearing headscarves or hijabs. Raisi said that the headscarf was part of Iranian culture long before the 1979 revolution and that the majority of women abide by the rule.

He said that "most of the Iranian women today are observing hijab” and “are observing the Islamic principles.”

Raisi accused the U.S. and the West of trying to “politicize the issue” and criticized France for a new measure in state-funded schools prohibiting pupils from wearing abayas, full-length robes worn my Muslim women.

Despite what Raisi called Western attempts to impose pressure on Iran over its dress code, “I believe that they have been defeated in this area, and they will be defeated in future, as well,” he said.