By Sarah K. Burris
Christiane Amanpour has a history of interviewing the top leaders of the world, but on Wednesday evening Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi clashed with the CNN International anchor.
Visiting the United Nations with other world leaders this week, President Raisi was to speak with Amanpour, she said, amid the uprising back home. Posting about the incident, she said that it was going to be his first interview on U.S. soil.
“After weeks of planning and eight hours of setting up translation equipment, lights and cameras, we were ready,” she explained. “But no sign of President Raisi. Forty minutes after the interview had been due to start, an aide came over. The president, he said, was suggesting I wear a headscarf because it’s the holy months of Muharram and Safar.”
Amanpour said that she politely declined. Raisi was in America now, where the laws about clothing give women the freedom to show things like their ankles, their arms, legs and heads, which is illegal in Iran.
“I pointed out that no previous Iranian president has required this when I have interviewed them outside Iran,” said Amanpour. “The aide made it clear that the interview would not happen if I did not wear a headscarf. He said it was ‘a matter of respect,’ and referred to ‘the situation in Iran’ – alluding to the protests sweeping the country.”
Amanpour still refused. The interview didn’t happen and the CNN team walked away from it.
Last week, a traveler, named Mahsa Amini, was killed while in police custody. “Amini’s family say officers beat her in the police van after her arrest, citing eyewitnesses who support that claim,” NPR reported.
Amini, also known by her Kurdish first name of Jhina, was visiting Tehran with her family last week when she was arrested for purportedly violating Iran’s strict dress code rules for women, in place since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
She fell into a coma hours after her arrest and died in hospital on September 16.
Activists contend she was ill-treated in detention and could have suffered a blow to the head. While this is not confirmed by the authorities, the anger fuelled the protests that started from her funeral last Saturday.
“These are the biggest protests since November 2019,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Iran expert at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
The protests come at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, when the Iranian economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by international sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Despite repeated warnings from Europe that time is running out, there is also no indication that the sides are on the verge of agreeing a deal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA) that would see sanctions eased.
The protests have featured chants of “death to the dictator” as well as other anti-regime slogans and the emergence of a new rallying cry, “Zan, zendegi, azadi” (“Woman, life, freedom”).
Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of Khamenei or, on one occasion, setting fire to a giant image of Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who is presented by the authorities as a near mythical figure after his 2020 killing by the United States in Iraq.
Protesters have also been seen directly resisting security forces, with women refusing to put their headscarves back on in front of the police and vehicles belonging to the security forces torched.
At least 11 people have been killed in the protests and activists fear the authorities will resort to the repression that, according to Amnesty International, saw 321 people killed by the security forces in November 2019.
With additional reporting by AFP