Iran cracks down on protests after death of young woman as global demonstrations grow

Protests mostly led by women are spreading in Iran and around the world. They were sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of the so-called "morality police." Over the last ten days, images have emerged of women burning their headscarves, cutting off their hair and marching in the thousands, chanting “death to the dictator.” Reza Sayah joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the demonstrations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Protests led largely by women have spread in Iran and around the world, sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police.

    Mahsa Amini was arrested because she was allegedly not wearing the required head covering. Now thousands of Iranian women are saying, enough is enough.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the last 10 days, astonishing images have emerged from across Iran, women burning their headscarves, cutting off their hair, and marching in the thousands, chanting 'Death to the dictator," all to protest the regime's hijab requirements for women.

    In cities worldwide, solidarity marches have now sprung up, from Syria to Greece to California. But, in Iran, the protesters are now facing a crackdown by authorities in the streets and online.

    For the latest on the ground, we're joined by special correspondent Reza Sayah, who is in Tehran.

    Reza, thanks for joining us.

    It's now the middle of the night there. We know many of these protests tend to kick off once the sun goes down. So just tell us what the latest is, what you're seeing.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Amna, Tuesday was a religious holiday here in Iran. So the streets were very quiet. And it's important to point out that, during these protests, during the daytime hours, things have been quiet, but it's when the sun goes down, it's when nightfall comes, that's when the protests happened.

    And when the sun went down on Tuesday night, the big question again, are protesters coming out? Obviously, there are severe restrictions here. The authorities have severely curtailed Internet service. They have blocked messenger apps like WhatsApp that has roughly 50 million users here in Iran, blocked social media platforms like Instagram and other 50 million users.

    And what we have had to do is essentially drive around town to monitor the situation and also monitor secondhand accounts of protests that can't be independently verified, and monitor amateur videos posted online. Those can't be independently verified either.

    That said, over the past 24, 48 hours, seemingly — and we say this with caution — there has been a decrease in amateur videos posted online. That could be because people are having a tough time uploading videos. Or it could be because the protests are dying down and abating. But it's unclear. And we can't report that with certainty.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So hard to come across reliable information there. We're so lucky we have you there.

    But, Reza, we should mention that the death of Mahsa Amini sparked what are now the first major protests nationwide in Iran since 2019. Those were sparked by a rise in fuel prices. And we know, back then, protesters were met by a brutal, brutal crackdown by the regime. You mentioned some of the ways they're curtailing communications, that they have responded in the streets.

    Is there a concern, the longer these protests go on,the crackdown will also become more brutal?

  • Reza Sayah:

    I think there's a concern.

    And what's been interesting is that the response by the government has evolved over the past 12 days. Initially, soon after Mahsa Amini died and these protests started, the government and the leadership signaled somewhat that they sympathize with these protesters, or at least that's what they tried to convey to quell the protests.

    You had the supreme leader sending a senior aide to Mahsa Amini's home. You had President Ebrahim Raisi, while he was in New York last week for the U.N. G.A., vowing to investigate this matter.

    When that didn't quell things, and when Ebrahim Raisi came back to Iran, that's when the crackdown got more severe, and, obviously, over the past several days, according to human rights groups, more than 70 people killed, more than 1,200 people arrested. We're seeing more activists and journalists arrested.

    I personally know a fellow journalist who was detained for roughly 24 hours. So, if indeed, these protests are dying down, it could be because of the intensity of the crackdown. And it also could have something to do with the fact that these protesters, as valiant as they are, they don't have a leadership, they don't have a strategy. And how long can you sustain a fight with a security apparatus like Iran's if those are the circumstances you're facing?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reza, the big question, of course, is, what could this lead to?

    What do you think? Are you seeing something fundamentally different from previous protests that says these will lead to any change?

  • Reza Sayah:

    It's impossible to say what this will lead to.

    But what it drives home once again is that there's a lot of grievances here, there's a lot of anger and frustration. And any event can spark protests like this. This time, it was a woman's wish to express herself the way she wants to. And that sparked the protests.

    And what's interesting is riding this wave, where other sectors of the population who are facing a struggling economy. There's joblessness here, unemployment, inflation. They have joined in. And you also have celebrities, actors, television hosts. They have joined in with their voices. That's something we haven't seen.

    But what we have seen in the past is, despite these voices, the government has the power, they have the weapons, and they have usually snuffed out these protests. I know a lot of people who don't like this government, both inside and outside Iran, want to push the narrative that, this time, it's different, that these protests are a legitimate threat to the government.

    And then you have the government pushing their own narrative, that this is no big deal and things are going to calm down. We will see what happens in the coming days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is special correspondent Reza Sayah joining us from Tehran tonight.

    Reza, thank you.

  • Reza Sayah:

    You're welcome.

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