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Rallies in Iran on 31st Anniversary of Islamic Revolution

Aired February 11, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the Iranian government puts on a show of strength, declaring itself a nuclear nation on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Welcome to our program.

With the world waiting to see how this day would shape up, the government of Iran seems to have got what it wanted today: a massive display of support in Freedom Square with no visible disruption by the opposition green movement.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians came or were brought in to hear President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrate 31 years of religious rule by saying that Iran has produced its first batch of 20 percent enriched uranium. In his speech, he denounced the West and declared, quote, "The Iranian nation became a nuclear nation."

As he was speaking, Iran's security forces were reportedly beating back anti-government demonstrators. Other reports say they attacked the car of one of the opposition leaders, Mehdi Karroubi, and CNN spoke to his son.


MOHAMMAD-TAGHI KARROUBI, SON OF OPPOSITION MOVEMENT LEADER: The guards attacked and the crowds came to him. When the crowds started to come and surrounded him, again, the guards attacked with tear gas, tear gas, as well as the batons and different kinds of weapons against the people. And, unfortunately, my father received very bad gas tears and his face is burned.

REZA: This was supposed to be a big day for the opposition movement. Overall, are you disappointed with the results of this day?

KARROUBI: Unfortunately, we are completely disappointed at the behavior of the state today. At the same time, we are hoping situation will be changed and the people who are in power will try to change their behavior and understand the people's demands and let the people present what they want.


AMANPOUR: Some demonstrators were calling for a referendum on Iran's future. Because of the regime's crackdown on the Internet and social media and its heavy campaign of intimidation before the anniversary, CNN cannot independently confirm any of the reports about the opposition rallies. We'll have an exclusive interview later with an Iranian diplomat who's seeking political asylum in the West.

But first, we're joined by Gary Sick of Columbia University. He was principal White House aide during the Carter White House on the issue of Iran during the revolution more than 30 years ago.

Professor Sick, as we heard there, what do the people want? What does the opposition movement want, do you think, as it stands today?

GARY SICK, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, that keeps changing, and because initially what they wanted was simply a recount of the election in June. As the -- as the regime has cracked down harder and harder, they're getting better at it. I mean, repression does work. And they now are much more organized in terms of keeping things quiet and keeping the opposition down than they were before.

As they've done that, however, the price that they pay for it is that the demands of the opposition go up.

AMANPOUR: And yet it really does seem that, since the June election, it's been a constant shadowboxing. Neither side has delivered a knockout punch. The regime has not crushed the opposition. The opposition has not changed the regime. Where is it leading?

SICK: Well, you know, we watched the Iranian revolution in 1978 and '79, and the reality is, you had no idea where it was going to go, and there was great difference of opinion. And, basically, it kind of depends on who blinks first. The regime is trying very hard to give an image that it is unbeatable, that it's strong, that it can't be intimidated, and that it will give nothing, it will give nothing whatsoever to the opposition.

The opposition keeps increasing their demands, but, again, as you say, not able to deliver a knockout punch.

AMANPOUR: Now, the opposition and the leaders -- and there was a lot of hype before today's anniversary -- saying they'd come out onto the streets.


In the limited vision that we've had of what happened in Tehran and around Iran today, how do you assess what the opposition achieved today or what the government achieved?

SICK: I think the opposition -- certainly, it was there in spots in various places. The -- as I say, the government has gotten better and better at its repressive techniques. And they've identified paths and where the opposition was likely to come. They've closed those off. They have troops surrounding them. They use tear gas at the very earliest site when their leaders began to appear. As we heard, they beat them up or scare them away or force them to turn back.

And as a result, I think -- it was very sporadic, and it was very isolated, in terms of what the opposition could do. So in that sense, I would say the -- the regime accomplished its short-term goals.

The problem is, the short term goals of repression and holding things down oppose the long-term goals, which would be really long-term legitimacy and support, and basically they're losing that all the time.

AMANPOUR: Well, as they lose legitimacy, they're also publicly sort of attacking the descendents of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, who have clearly stood with the opposition, with the reform movement. Isn't that an irony today, 31 years later?

SICK: You know, it's really astonishing. But, you know, the people who were closest to Khomeini, with the exception of a very, very few people around Khomeini himself, those people have all moved to the reform side. They are all on the side of change, and they all believe that the revolution has not, in fact, met its goals, that it has cheated the people, in terms of what it promised and what it actually delivered.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Mousavi himself said he was very close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He was one of the first prime ministers.

SICK: Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi both have made statements saying, "You know, I was a true believer. I really felt that the -- that the revolution has accomplished great things, that -- a wonderful future." And both of them now say, "But I've changed my mind. It simply isn't true anymore."

AMANPOUR: There are basically two stories, though, going on about Iran. There's the Iranian government's confrontation with the West over the nuclear issue and, as we've been speaking, the confrontation by the people against the Iranian government and vice versa.

How to connect these two stories? Can they be connected? How does the West deal with this right now?

SICK: Well, you know, the whole history of U.S.-Iran relations, at least -- I'll leave out France and Germany and others -- has been -- the domestic policy is really foreign policy and that the West has had a very hard time -- the U.S. has had a terrible time trying to deal with Iran in any kind of rational way because we have all those memories of the hostage crisis, we have all of those memories of things that we felt were bad.

AMANPOUR: But beyond that, the West seems to try to -- it seems to be stuck in how to -- how harshly to deal with the government over its nuclear issues, not knowing how it's going to affect and how it wants to affect the domestic political situation.

SICK: When President Obama originally came up with his idea of engagement and opening up, holding a hand out to Iran, that was -- it seemed very attractive to--

AMANPOUR: Would you say it's pretty much failed, it just hasn't worked?

SICK: Well, I would say that he was unwilling to quite follow through on what he said, and the reason that he couldn't really follow through is because of the elections in June, because the sudden uprise of opposition to government.

And so what do you do? Do you -- do you go ahead and deal with the government as if nothing has happened? Some people say we should. Or do you say, "Wait a minute. Everything is different than it was before, and we have to change our strategy," and I think he's sort of fallen between stools on that.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about strategy. Many people -- some of the Iranian think-tank groups outside are saying, "You've been wasting your time, you in the West, talking just about the nuclear issue. Focus on democracy. Focus on human rights." Has the strategy been wrong from the start?

SICK: You know, it's nice to say those things, but what do you actually do? I mean, you want to support democracy in Iran. If the United States intervenes in any direct way to assist the people who were out in the streets trying to do something, we basically undercut their legitimacy, because then they really do look like Western stooges.

So we can say nice words, but that doesn't -- that doesn't get anybody very far. The one kind of series of things that we can do, which I hope will occur to us at some point, is to make it much easier for Iranians to actually keep the Internet open and functioning. If they had a way of getting news out and to actually say what they wanted to say freely on the Internet anonymously, you would have a flood of information coming out of Iran that would be really very valuable.

AMANPOUR: Going back to the -- to the other -- well, going back to the nuclear issue, Iran -- well, you heard President Ahmadinejad today declare that Iran is now a nuclear nation.


How -- how -- you know, this -- this nuclear clock keeps being pushed back. We keep hearing every year that they're going to be at a critical point. And there's so much confusion about it.

Where do you think they stand right now? And how is this going to affect the international community?

SICK: Well, actually, they're not really any closer than they were two years ago. And, in fact, their centrifuges are not working very well. They have not made very much progress at all. And, of course, Ahmadinejad has been saying for years that Iran was a nuclear nation. He can announce that every time there's a celebration, but the reality is, nothing much has happened.

And if they've produced a gram of 20 percent enriched uranium, well, hooray, but, you know, it's not a great accomplishment, frankly.

AMANPOUR: What do you make of what we're hearing about the new updated U.S. National Intelligence Estimate? They're going to say -- and contradict the 2007 report -- and they're going to apparently say that Iran is moving closer towards weaponization again.

SICK: As far as I know, those judgments are based on laptop or experiments, tabletop experiments that people do, where they try out this shape versus that shape and see what would happen in a simulation, a -- you know, a simulation of the thing actually happening without actually carrying out tests.

Those -- you know, it would be a little strange for things like not to be done, and that's never astonished me that they would have had somebody looking at a laptop trying to figure out.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, you talk about simulation and test games. There has been one recently. How did the U.S. come out?

SICK: Oh, well, that was a different simulation. That was a simulation in this country, and it wasn't a scientific test. It was a group of people with a lot of policy experience trying to play out the next year in U.S.-Iran relations.

And the result of that, unfortunately, was really very bad for the United States. And I say particularly bad because, in the end, Iran actually ended up stronger than when it started, and the United States, I regret to say, was pursuing exactly the policy that the U.S. is pursuing right now. There was no imagination, nothing new. It was, "OK, we can't get along with you, so we're going to try to put on sanctions." They couldn't get sanctions on. They offended all of their friends and enemies -- friends and allies and, at the end of the day, the United States was more isolated than Iran was.

AMANPOUR: To be continued. Professor Gary Sick, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.

SICK: Always a pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And to see more videos of today's events in Tehran, go to, where we have a special section on the anniversary of the revolution and the latest unrest.

Next, our exclusive interview with a high-ranking Iranian defector. I spoke with him earlier about the display of defiance against Tehran. That's when we return.




ALI LARIJANI, IRANIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER (through translator): The Islamic parliament demands government security officials, including the interior ministry and the intelligence ministry and the judiciary system, arrest these blasphemers and consider the harshest sentence without any forgiveness against these people who are anti-revolution.


AMANPOUR: That was the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, speaking about the protests you saw there that took place in December on Ashura, a holy day for Shiite Muslims. The government's crackdown led to the resignation of Mohammad Reza Heydari as Iran's consul general in Oslo, Norway, and he joins us now from there, where he has applied for political asylum.

Mr. Heydari, thank you for joining us.

MOHAMMED REZA HEYDARI, FORMER IRANIAN CONSUL GENERAL (through translator): Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell me what led to your resignation?

HEYDARI: The events that occurred after the presidential elections in Iran and the way the government treated the people on the streets led all of us to think whether we can accept the way our people are being treated on the streets or not. And on Ashura, when the events culminated in violence, any human being watching it would question why a government that claims to be a Shiite government would treat their on the holiest of Shiite days as such.

That's why I decided to part ways with the system and stand with the people and to voice their concerns to the whole world that we seek freedom and democracy and that this system cannot respond to the needs of our young people and our nation any longer.

AMANPOUR: But where is it going? What is the cause, Mr. Heydari? Is the cause democracy and freedom?

HEYDARI: The cause, bringing the message, bringing different groups together, is starting a referendum to have free elections in Iran so that all of these groups can stand together and bring about a democratic government to meet the demands of all religious and ethnic minorities, as well.

AMANPOUR: So what was the reaction inside the government to your resignation?

HEYDARI: The first measure the Islamic government took said that my resignation was a rumor and refuted it and basically said it hadn't happened. But when I insisted on my resignation, and when I refused their proposals to return to Iran, the government so far has remained silent.

I know that my family inside Iran and I myself abroad have been under pressure not to speak the words of the people.

AMANPOUR: Have they sent anybody to try to persuade you to come back?

HEYDARI: Yes, the delegation from the foreign ministry arrived in Oslo, and they contacted me. They made some proposals so that I would return to Iran and, when I returned, to an interview in Khomeini Airport and, in it, deny my resignation, and to appear on the Islamic Republic Broadcasting, before television and radio, and deny my resignation, and say that it was the West that created this rumor and to condemn the West and, as a result, I could remain in the system and continue my cooperation with them.

AMANPOUR: What about when you resigned? Did you talk to other Iranian officials in diplomatic posts? Did you encourage others to follow your example?

HEYDARI: I started a campaign of "green embassy," along with my friends who thought the same way I do. I had e-mails from different embassies. And so I told my friends to choose to side with the people before it's late, because the Iranian people are embracing all of us right now.

But tomorrow, when the people will define their own future, they will not accept any justification for our actions then. Right now, we see the government is easily killing our young people, trapping them, executing them.


It is unacceptable by the people for us to remain silent and to not show any reaction. And so I hope they will join the campaign that I've set up and to basically define what they want from the government.

AMANPOUR: But nobody has joined you yet, is that correct?

HEYDARI: Actually, a few friends have. But because of security reasons, their names have not been disclosed yet. And there are a number of other friends I've received e-mails from today saying that if, on 11th of February, the government is violent towards the people, they will join the people and denounce that.

And right now in our embassies, right now there's a chaos, and they are split. The diplomatic corps and the intelligence corps are split at our embassies right now.

AMANPOUR: You know the government of Iran has accused foreign governments -- the United States, Britain, other Europeans -- of generating the protests on the ground in Iran. When you were there, was there any attempt by the Norwegians to seek to mobilize this popular demonstrations in Iran?

HEYDARI: Not at all. These are issues that the Iranian government is trying to infuse in the minds of others, saying that the movement is supported from abroad. This is an in-born movement that has no connections with foreigners. It reflects the demands of the Iranian people after 30 years, the demands that the Islamic Republic made. None of them were done.

So after 30 years, except for poverty, corruption and prostitution, this revolution has brought nothing else. The people want their demands met. And the fact that the government is saying these things is a way to sort of scatter the thoughts and to create an imaginary enemy to connect what is happening to the West, whereas this is an in-born Iranian issue and has to do with the way the Iranian government has treated its people.

AMANPOUR: And what is your future? Can you go back? What are you going to do?

HEYDARI: I hope that, given the various movements that are happening on the ground, the green movement will convince the Iranian government to sit down and negotiate, and to give free elections, to bring democracy and human rights, free elections in which all our groups are represented, so that I can live alongside my own people inside Iran, have a life that all Iranian people deserve to have. But this system has withheld that life so far.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe there's a possibility of compromise between the government and the reform movement?

HEYDARI: I hope so. I hope that with the movement that has begun with strikes, with civil disobedience, and with non-violent protests that are happening in Iran, the back of the current government will break and they will be forced to listen to what the people say, because if they move in a direction of violence, they will not be able to control the system, and we might move in the direction in which Iran's unity might then be compromised all together.

AMANPOUR: Mohammed Reza Heydari, thank you very much for joining us.

HEYDARI: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And we want to know what you think. Did the government or reformists win in Iran today? Tell us on, where we have a large Iranian community.

And next, our "Post-Script." An event 20 years ago that changed the course of history, that's when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." As we watch Iran, the political upheaval, the challenge to the legitimacy of the regime more than 30 years after the revolution, we also want to remember an electrifying event in South Africa exactly 20 years ago. That's when then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after more than 27 years behind bars, with his then-wife Winnie Mandela at his side.

His release spurred the end of apartheid. And today, Mandela, who is 91 years old, made a rare public appearance in South Africa's parliament to celebrate that important anniversary.

His release inspired political prisoners who were still sitting in their jails all over the world. They heard about his release as they were sitting there either by the radio or from their guards who whispered them that news. And they've been writing in the New York Times remembering.

Wei Jingsheng from China said that "Mr. Mandela's experience demonstrated that it's important to bear life's setbacks and to maintain unbending confidence in eventual success."

And Ko Bo Kyi from Burma was inspired, as well. "Mr. Mandela's refusal to give up his principles during more than 27 years in jail was an inspiration to me and all other political activists," he wrote.

And Nguyen Dan Que of Vietnam said, "Bravo, I thought, for the victory of dignity and hope over despair and hatred, of self-discipline and love over persecution and evil."

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with an exclusive interview with Angelina Jolie from Haiti. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.