58 mins

The Problem Podcast

The #MahsaAmini Protest and Iran's Fight for Freedom

We’re talking about the #MahsaAmini protests in Iran with Rana Rahimpour, an Iranian-British journalist with BBC Persian. Jon is also joined by staff writer Alexa Loftus and our Iranian supervising producer Reza Riazi. It’s a fascinating discussion about why this uprising is different from anything that’s come before, what comes next for the people of Iran, and what the U.S. can do to help. (The bad news is it involves Elon Musk.) And if that’s not enough, they go down a Lord of the Rings rabbit hole you simply will not see coming.


The #MahsaAmini Protest and Iran’s Fight for Freedom

EP 209 Final Transcript

Jon: Alright. Ready to go?


Jon: Hello. Welcome to the podcast. The Problem with me. The Problem, uh, TV shows back on Apple TV+ for season two on October 7th. Uh, so set your Google Calendar? [ALEXA LAUGHS]. I don’t know how what you would set there. Uh, season one, obviously the links are in there already. Uh, and reminder podcast, we’re doing this every week now. Because we work so. Really, it’s so f***ing hard. We work so hard. I mean, I sometimes I’ll go from this room to the kitchen. [LAUGHTER] Make a snack. Uh, the podcast this week, uh, we’re gonna, uh, this week I think it’s coming out, I don’t know what day, but next week it’s coming out Wednesday, I think we’re gonna move it to Wednesday, but this is a very special edition of the podcast. It’s the international edition. The Addition Internazionale. [LAUGHTER] Is that? No? Uh, we’re talking to, uh, Reza Riazi, who is our, uh, vaunted, he produces and supervises and, uh, writer Alexa Loftus.

Alexa: Hello.

Jon: Our guest today is Rana Rahimpour, who is a BBC News Persian journalist. She’s gonna talk all about, uh, this incredible, really grassroots women’s revolution. These incredibly brave women removing their head scarves, their hijab, waving them in defiance of the morality police of the Revolutionary Guard of the Basij of, and really taking a stand. Um, Reza, I’m a start with you. You’re obviously Iranian.

Reza: Yeah. Yeah.

Jon: How are you feeling? Are you hearing news from the family? Like what’s happening?

Reza: It’s super emotional to watch for so many reasons. One, it’s terrifying because people going in the streets is dangerous. And there’s been, obviously Mahsa was killed. 

Jon: Mahsa –

Reza: Mahsa Amini –

Jon: Mahsa Amini was the young woman who was arrested by the morality police, not for even having her hijab, not wearing it. It apparently wasn’t—

Reza: Some hair was coming out or something. It wasn’t proper.

Jon: Yes.

Reza: It wasn’t proper enough.

Jon: And was killed in custody and that’s what sparked this.

Reza: Yeah. 

Alexa: Reza, I have a few questions. 

Reza: OK.

Alexa: I feel like there’s an assumed baseline context that I would say for a lot of people who went to US history class. We missed. We missed out.

Reza: You, you didn’t, you didn’t have your semester about Iran? We learned about Christopher Columbus for like 14 years and then it was over. My grandfather would probably tell you he’s Iranian. He kinda flips everybody to that. Anybody who’s accomplished anything. [ALEXA LAUGHS]

Jon: Right.

Alexa: And I would believe you. [REZA LAUGHS] Um, so, OK. Morality police are, is this different than regular police?

Reza: Yes. They’re very specific. 

Alexa: And their sole job is just—

Reza: Dress and action, by the way. So like, you can’t hold hands with people who are not your wife— 

Jon: Right.

Reza: Or your mother. 

Alexa: Oooh.

Reza: You can’t – 

Jon: It’s different than the regular police, like the morality police will pull you over and say, “Do you know how sexy you were going?” [LAUGHTER] And then what’ll happen is then you’ll say like, “Sir, no, I was, I was being incredibly vanilla.” 

Reza: Yes.

Jon: And they’re like, “Mm.” [ALEXA LAUGHS] “No!”

Reza: “No, no, no, no. That is too much style.” 

Jon: “Sir.”

Reza: “Not enough God, my friend.” [ALEXA LAUGHS]

Jon: “The style and the swivel in those hips, tell me, [REZA & ALEXA LAUGH] pull over Mister.”

Alexa: OK.

Reza: So yeah, they’re just, they’re strictly action and dress and things like that. But, you know, they looked like little Army guys walking down the street.

Jon: Do you recall any run-ins with morality police – 

Reza: Oh yeah. 

Jon: —on yourself or with your family? 

Reza: Oh yeah.

Jon: Like how intrusive is it in the everyday life?

Reza: Very. I mean, you know, now it’s been around for 40 years, but it’s also ebbs and flows of how strict they are with things.

Alexa: Ah.

Jon: Right.

Reza: So I know from what I’d heard recently it was, “Hey, we’re really gonna crack down.” And the last time I was there—

Jon: OK.

Reza: —it was a little looser. Like, I was being too loud in a coffee shop and I got the stink eye from them. So it’s things like that. Or they would tell women as you’re walking by, like, “Hey sister, pull your, pull your thing up.” But [JON LAUGHS] you know. In, in the ebbs and flows of it because again, Iranian women, and I don’t just say this cuz I’ve been surrounded by them my whole life. Like my mom, my grandparents, like everybody, they are bada**es by nature. So there’s always this, there was this mutual kind of s*** talking that could also happen in the sense of like, “Hey, pull it up.” And it’s like, “What is it to you?” And like, you know what I mean? This kind of back and forth.

Jon: Right.

Reza: That even kind of felt more playful if anything at that time. Cause they’re just annoyed by it. But, uh, my understanding is in the last month it was really like, hey, we’re not — it’s strict.

Jon: It’s a crack down.

Reza: No more of if any of this. Yeah. 

Jon: Right. 

Reza: Yeah. So we, we’d had run-ins. 

Jon: Right.

Reza: It’s heartbreaking to watch because there’s been all these videos pouring out of like women in the streets dancing at these protests. And it’s really easy to watch from our side and be like, well that’s kind of corny or hippie. Like what are these girls doing out there dancing around. But you have to remember that dancing is a literal form of rebellion there because it’s illegal for a woman to dance in public. So that’s kind of like where the baseline of rights are, where expressing yourself in the way you dress or how you dance and again I know a lot of people don’t know about Iran unless you pair it with nuclear. Right?

Jon: Right. 

Reza: But. Like, this is a culture that loves art. They love fashion. You know, that’s why we all come here and start wearing gold, head to toe and Versace and crazy s*** like that. [LAUGHTER]

Alexa: Reza, I just wanna clarify. I don’t, it’s not corny at all. I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s corny.

Reza: To, to dancing as far—

Alexa: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like the what? Dancing around huge bonfire. Like—

Reza: —everything we do, we put pizazz on it.

Alexa: It’s got a lot of pizazz.

Reza: And look, this might be the flip of oppression, right? Like people there just love to party. Like I, I remember one time being there and some guys like, “Bro, we’ve, you know, there’s some stewardesses in from Germany. You should come party with us tonight.” And I was like—

Jon: Sure, sure.

Reza: —“buddy. I’m nine, I’m a nine year old. I’m not gonna—” [LAUGHTER]

Jon: OK. Reza you’re never too young to take advantage of German’s stewardess hospitality [LAUGHTER]. Listen, it, it needn’t be, uh, you know, sexual, these are German stewardess, you could have gone in and said, may I have a Toblerone? You have a Toblerone in the back. [LAUGHTER]

Reza: Obviously this is a country that’s crushed economically last 40 years, you know, drowning under sanctions and—

Jon: You’re welcome.

Reza: Yeah. Uh—

Alexa: That was Jon.

Reza: And it’s a big country. I think a lot of people don’t know that it’s a population of 80 million people, you know –

Jon: It’s a beautiful country too. 

Reza: Yeah. It’s a beautiful country. 

Jon: Uh, and not getting a lot of attention here. I think everybody’s looking to Italy now, like, my God, Mussolini’s back and he’s wearing a dress [ALEXA LAUGHS]. Like it’s, you know, it’s got that – 

Reza: That’s big. That’s news. Mussolini in a dress?

Jon: But it, it seems we’re obsessed with trying to see ourselves in, in other co– you know, this in, in Italy right now with Georgia Malone. I think it’s – 

Alexa: I’m mostly interested in the fact that she apparently was radicalized at Hobbit Camp.

Reza: What?

Jon: Hobbit Camp?

Alexa: So apparently the far right movement, especially in Italy, they see the Lord of the Rings as like a sacred text.

Jon: I mean, I see the Lord of the Rings as a morality tale of fighting authoritarianism like—

Reza: That’s your view buddy.

Jon: Of evil, of power. I mean, the ring of power being the corrupting force in, in all of human endeavor. I’m going to be honest with you guys.

Alexa: I think that’s the problem [REZA LAUGHS]. You can make it about whatever you want. I think that’s the problem.

Jon: I did not go to Hobbit camp.

Alexa: Nor I.

Jon: And I’m gonna probably be very clear about that. We just didn’t have the money.

Alexa: She projects that like she’s sort of preserving this, uh, idealized version of a land where she doesn’t want outsiders—

Jon: Oh.

Reza: Oh.

Alexa: -sort of thing.

Jon: We’re Orks.

Alexa: Yes.

Jon: Everybody who is not Italian is an Ork.

Alexa: There we go.

Jon: And they are protecting, uh, the beauty of their society from—

Alexa: From nasty, filthy Orks.

Reza: This is suddenly making sense. 

Jon: Well, to move from, uh, The Hobbit to back to Iran, our guest today is, I, do you know – Rana Rahimpour, BBC journalist. She has been covering this story. And, uh, she’s gonna join us now. I’m gonna bring her in. She’s gonna talk, uh, all things Iran and then we’ll come back and get together. And in the interim while she’s talking, if you guys could figure out this Lord of The Rings thing, [ALEXA LAUGHS] I completely appreciate it because that’s so f***ed me up. [LAUGHTER] Alright, let’s get to, let’s get to her.


Interview with Rana Rahimpour Begins 

Jon: Rana, thanks so much for joining us. What is your impression about where things stand out? This seems bloodier than perhaps past demonstrations, but it seems more robust in some respects as well. So what’s, what are your thoughts on, on what’s happening on the ground?

Rana: Thanks for inviting me, Jon and thanks— 

Jon: Please.

Rana: —for, uh, covering this topic because it’s a huge story. Historic for many Iranians, especially Iranian women. What we’re witnessing now is a moment that the younger generation in Iran, mainly teenagers and in their early twenties, have decided to come out and say, “No.” Because the death of a 22 year old girl called Mahsa Amini—

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: —after she was arrested by the morality police, so she died in custody, has left many people, extremely angry. 

Jon: Yes.

Rana: So the difference between this time and previous protests is, uh, that generational difference. We’re talking about people who are not afraid.

Jon: And the generational differences in Iran are very meaningful. And Americans know it only as, “Didn’t they hold some of our people in an embassy once?” There’s the revolutionary generation. There’s maybe the Green Revolution generation, which was the last time I think maybe these kinds of protests, uh, exploded on the streets. And now there’s this generation, maybe 14 years later. Is this sustainable?

Rana: That’s a very good question and a lot of people who are protesting on the street think—

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: —it’s unsustainable. So you’re absolutely right. Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran was a liberal country.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Socially, it was liberal. Um, women had equal rights. They could wear whatever they wanted. And then the revolution happened. For many people, it was a democratic revolution.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: But it was hijacked by the Muslim radicals. A few months later, they introduced compulsory hijab or headscarf.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: In fact, the first anti hijab protest was only 25 days after the revolution.

Jon: Oh, wow!

Rana: Women went out on this street and said, “No, we’re not doing it.” It’s very similar to Handmaid’s Tale if you’ve seen it.

Jon: Right.

Rana: So going from a liberal society where women had equal rights to a society in which you’re forced to wear a headscarf.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: And their resistance continued. Five years after their revolution, it became criminal not to wear a headscarf.

Jon: OK.

Rana: So women without headscarves were not allowed to go inside government buildings. Shop owners were not allowed to give them any service. And then there were police, uh, officers stationed in different parts of the city who were arresting women for not observing the headscarf. So when you look at it, the Islamic Revolution took many of the women’s rights more than men. Way more than men.

Jon: Right.

Rana: So they were the biggest losers of the revolution. And the resistance has continued. Five years ago, we had a woman who went out on a street in Central Tehran called Revolution Street.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: She stood on top of an electricity box. She held a stick with her head scarf on top of it.

Jon: Wow.

Rana: People just watched and they thought, “Oh, she must be crazy.”

Jon: Right.

Rana: And she was immediately arrested and sentenced to prison.

Jon: Right.

Rana: Then few more people did it and they were also arrested. And now, five years down the line, we’re now in 2022.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: We’re seeing people who are out on the street, even in religious parts of Iran, including the city of Mashhad, for example.

Jon: Oh, really? 

Rana: Yes.

Jon: That’s different, right.

Rana: That is very different.

Jon: Yeah.

Rana: And there, there was a footage of a woman standing on top of a car waving her head scarf, and she’s surrounded by men who are cheering her.

Jon: Wow. OK.

Rana: We have footage of women who had set up a bonfire and they’re dancing around and they are burning their head scarves. 

Jon: Wow. I mean, people have to understand as well that, you know, you might look at it and say like, it’s the head scarf. It’s — but it’s symbolic of exactly what you’re talking about, which is a society that is being smothered. In America we’ve been trained to demonize the Iranian people. But it’s the theocracy, it’s this conservative regime that is smothering the true heart, the true spirit, I think, of the Iranian people. But, it is a divided society. And so I wonder for — I guess the question is this: what we’ve seen through the Arab Spring and what we’ve seen in Iran is that a democratic instinct that wants to breathe free has been no match for how organized the right and the autocracies and the theocracies of that part of the world. So it’s the chaos. If it’s to succeed, what are you replacing this theocracy with? 

Rana: I don’t think it’s been thought about.

Jon: OK.

Rana: Um, so at the moment, it’s a leaderless movement.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Led by the women’s movement. And it has woken up the student movement. So we we’re now seeing protests and strikes and resignations at universities.

Jon: OK.

Rana: And then we are hearing voices from the workers movement about joining these strikes.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: So we’re now witnessing the birth of a mega movement. But does it have an organization? Not yet.

Jon: OK.

Rana: Does it have a leader? Not yet. But the people who are now protesting on the streets, they are not, there are no religious slogans.

Jon: OK.

Rana: And no slogans in support of the, uh, former monarchy. And they don’t—

Jon: Yes, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t think so.

Rana: [RANA LAUGHS] No. Um, and they don’t seem that they are putting too much hope on the West. Which is fascinating.

Jon: Wait, I don’t understand why Rana, we’re, [RANA LAUGHS] good allies. We’re always there for you. Sure, have we sanctioned you for 70 years and made it so that cancer patients can’t get radiation treatments? Of course. But who doesn’t make mistakes? You bring up a great question. You know, we always like to say, “We support the great people of Iran and the Democratic movements.” What would support look like from the West? Would it be ending sanctions? Would it be strengthening sanctions so that it, they would only hit the corrupt theocrats and not the people on the street? How can you support this movement?

Rana: That’s a very good question. And, um, I’ve been asking that question for many of my guests on my show.

Jon: OK.

Rana: Um, so sanctions is a very tricky subject to talk about. It’s double-edged sword. Some people say that if there are no sanctions, then the Iranian government will get that money, which is not going to be spent inside the country.

Jon: Right.

Rana: They will, that the politicians will pocket it or they will spend it on their proxy groups in the region to, to cause more havoc there.

Jon: And that would be for those, it’s sort of Hezbollah and other proxy groups that Iran is sort of aligned with to maintain power. It’s part of the Shia / Sunni split as opposed to the, uh, Democrat-theocracy split.

Rana: Exactly. The other people say that these sanctions are mainly hurting ordinary people, as you mentioned, they’re difficulty to find medicine. It’s the, it’s not the rich who, uh, are usually close to the government who are, uh, feeling the pain of the sanctions.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: So there is no right or wrong answers to this. 

Jon: Uh, I’m afraid, Rana, we’re gonna have to have a right answer. [RANA LAUGHS] We’ve invited you on the podcast. You are our expert. So I’m afraid you’re gonna have to be, uh, give us an objective answer. Concrete. You’re gonna have to stand by.

Rana: But I tell you there are, there are things the West can do, for instance – 

Jon: Right.

Rana: Uh, there are some clever moves that the treasury announced last week that they removed the clause in the sanctions, which potentially would allow Elon Musk to send Starlink Internet, the satellite internet to Iran.

Jon: OK. OK

Rana: Because now the authorities have shut down the internet in large parts of the country.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Or to help Iranians use uh, VPNs and proxies to go around these filters that’s so they can connect to the internet

Jon: And social media is a real organizing principle for these kind of, uh, leaderless movements. The only difficulty is like in 2008 the Iranian government reverse engineered a lot of the social media and found their way into, uh, you know, the kinds of where the organizations were taking place. 

Rana: It is tricky but the youth have also so many years of, uh, banning the internet means a lot of people know how to go around it, even my parents who are in their seventies, as soon as WhatsApp was shut down, within a day I received a call on WhatsApp from my dad and said, Oh, you’re connected. So I’ve got a VPN now. So people are now-

Jon: Rana, could your parents, can they be my genius bar? Cause I would like for them to, I’ve got a lot of, uh, tech issues that I would, I would like to go on.

Rana: It’s usually young cousins who go and install these for the older, um – 

Jon: Right.

Rana: Members of the family.

Jon:, You know, revolution is great until nobody’s there to pick up your trash. I feel like we, we failed the Arab Spring in the West. I truly feel we did that. Nobody wants to live in chaos, and we did not provide the kind of logistical support that you would need to provide groups that need to become organized and foundational. How do we begin that work?

Rana: To be honest, I think that’s something that the Iranians inside the country will have to do themselves.

Jon: Right.

Rana: Any meddling in what’s happening inside the country will potentially jeopardize it.

Jon: Oh, OK. So that’s, it’s actually the instinct to, to be helpful, actually then demonizes the movement, in some respects, I see.

Rana: Especially at this point that the government has a lot of power, power, especially military power.

Jon: Right.

Rana: As soon as they feel that these protests are being supported by outside forces, they will use that as an excuse to, uh, even to use more violence against it and to, to crack it down.

Jon: Right. But they’ll do that no matter what. I mean, that’s the thing that, that you sort of learn in – 

Rana: Yes. The Coup of 1953 Iranians don’t have a good memory of originally.

Jon: How many times do I have to tell you? I’m sorry! You don’t understand, the oil was so delicious. And British Petroleum, they said everything would be fine. I- damn. What about having someone who had some credibility within the government? Are there leaders not from that generation, but maybe of an older generation who can help them from within the country?

Rana: Mm-hmm. So it sounds like they, this generation that is protesting right now has moved on from the reformists.

Jon: OK.

Rana: So the difference between now and 2009, which we call Green Movement, because it never became a revolution and it never was a revolution.

Jon: Right.

Rana: Was they were looking for change within the system because they still hoped that they could change the system.

Jon: OK.

Rana: So the main slogan in 2009 was, “give my vote back to me.” They still believe that their –

Jon: Right.

Rana: – establishment might give them their vote. And to remind your audience, uh, there were some presidential elections in 2009 and many believed that it was, uh, fraudulent and that’s why hundreds of thousands –

Jon: Right.

Rana: – if not not millions, went on the street asking for, um, the government to cancel the result of that election. But you see, they still wanted to hold onto the establishment.

Jon: Right.

Rana: Thirteen down the line, we have teenagers who are shouting on the streets, “Death to the dictator. Death to Khomeini. I don’t want the Islamic Republic.” And the reason is that they don’t believe that the Islamic Republic will give them what they are looking for. And what they’re looking for is probably just a normal life, prosperity, just this desperation and the ups and downs of sanctions is, is there going to be a nuclear deal? Are we gonna get, is life gonna get better? And no, it doesn’t. So it’s just all the, all the crisis, uh, on top of each other has put them in a position that they feel that this cannot be achieved under the Islamic Republic.

Jon: And what seems so interesting here is the investment in the young people in not just self-determination, but in a normalcy. This is less, that high minded ideal that Americans like to mythologize our revolution with that idea of, you know, a democratic and diverse, you know, it’s all the things and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and we’ve always had a hard time living up to a lot of those ideals. This sounds more like, “I want a stable future.”

Rana: Mm-hmm.

Jon: “And I’m tired of living in a place this bleak.” Is that more the beyond that? Is that it?

Rana: That is it. That is it.

Jon: Wow. And is that then, how much of this then do they relate to sanctions and the nuclear deal and what, in their mind, what is the cause of that lack of normalcy?

Rana: The Islamic Republic.

Jon: OK. So they really, they don’t blame the West. They really do blame.

Rana: Yes. A couple of years ago.

Jon: OK. Interesting.

Rana: The first time that I, I found that the slogan fascinating was in a, you know, protest in which people started shouting um [RANA SPEAKS FARSI] “Our enemy is here. They lie to us when they say it’s America.”

Jon: Wow. You know, what could they teach that to other countries? [RANA LAUGHS] Because we could use, if they could, you know what, let me get a VPN. Let me, let me start spreading that bad boy around the world. That’d be very helpful. How does, now Khamenei is obviously infirm.

Rana: 83?

Jon: Yeah, I mean, he’s, he’s infirm. Who is his, you know, uh, I guess Soleimani was the general that, was killed that kind of led the revolutionary guard and was a real, you know, mythic figure within Iran. They’re also aging out. And so who is the next generation of leaders that’s going to sustain this? And is there anyone within the theocracy that sees that we are going to have to adapt to this new reality? Or will it be purely another, “I’m gonna double down on crackdown and theocracy.”

Rana: So the question of succession is a million dollar question.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: It’s not like North Korea, there isn’t a clear successor. But Jon, with all the crises that Iran has at the moment. The death of Khamenei can be a turning point. It’s very difficult to imagine anybody can replace him, who would hold such a tight grip of power. Who can, who would be able to mobilize the revolutionary guards, the religious clerics, the army, um, and all the older politicians in the country. So that is going to be a very interesting chapter of the Islamic Revolution, and whether the next successor will understand the demand for change and realize that similar to, um, Mohammed bin Salem in Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince, who would see that, “OK, we really need to change, otherwise this situation is unsustainable.” And whether that will happen peacefully, that will probably be the best case scenario.

Jon: Is that a frustration in Iran ever that, you know, you look at, look, I don’t think you can look at the Saudi government and the Iranian government and suggest that one is open and free and democratic and the other is a terrible repressive theocracy. And yet, we’re starting golf tournaments with the Saudis, and there’s no real moral compass that’s leading that. And is that a frustration to the Iranian people, that they’re demonized, their regime is demonized, but looking around the region, they don’t appear to be a completely different entity than others that we are absolutely friendly with.

Rana: Of course it’s that frustration. But again, they blame the Iranian leadership.

Jon: Right.

Rana: They don’t blame the Americans for being close to Saudi Arabia.

Jon: Do they view Saudi Arabia as the kind of foe that we believe them to be for Iran?

Rana: There is definitely rivalry.

Jon: Right. And Iraq as well?

Rana: Less so, especially after Sadam fell and there was  a power vacuum, and in Iran—

Jon: Right.

Rana: —The Islamic Republic of Iran quickly tried to, um, fill that vacuum. So right now they are very close with parts of the Iranian, um, political establishment, but it’s very important to differentiate between the supporters of the government.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: And how they see it, and the protesters who are, who have decided to–

Jon: Is, would you, would you say this is a vocal minority protesting or this is a brave minority to a majority point of view, just the ones that have chosen to go out on the streets? You know, Everybody talks about the American red / blue divide. There’s sort of a rural and an urban and a liberal and more conservative. Iran is very similar. That the power of the theocracy is really in the rural areas, in the more religious cities, as you said. The more urban areas are probably more used to a sophisticated, maybe a little bit more of a liberal outlook. Would you say that the women, the brave women that have come out on the street and put themselves in such terrible danger, are the tip of the spear of a larger majority feeling in the country? Or is this, is this, do they stand kind of on an island?

Rana: They’re not an island. I was speaking with a, in fact a woman political analyst in Iran, and I –

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: – asked her about the scale of these protests. And I said, “Would you say they’re out in millions?” She said, “No.”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: So there are pockets of protests, but it’s geographically huge. So over 85 cities have seen protests in the last–

Jon: Even the more conservative cities?

Rana: Even the more conservative cities. The city of Qom and Masshad, the, some of them are, are, are very important in the world of Islam. So they have seen –

Jon: Yeah Qom is, Qom is the sort of the religious heart. Yes?

Rana: Yes, Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Um, so it’s large in, in, in terms of the numbers of cities, um, but small in, in terms of the number of people who are out actively protesting. But one thing that this woman told me was that there’s huge sympathy.

Jon: OK.

Rana: Amongst people.

Jon: Right.

Rana: And what’s fascinating this time, Jon, unlike 2009, is that the death of a 22 year old woman for not wearing proper head scarf. It wasn’t, she wasn’t naked, remember? So she still was wearing Islamic head scarf, but for some reason the officers decided that it wasn’t Islamic enough. That has really disturbed many followers of the government as well.

Jon: Oh really? OK. So even some conservatives are feeling like this morality police move is hair coming out of a hijab is not, pretense for imprisoning and unfortunately killing.

Rana: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I was listening to some conversations, on Twitter space.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Where some people from Iran were there and many of them are religious people, uh, religious parents. And they were saying that, “You know, even Prophet Mohammad would never have treated non-Muslim women the way we are treating our Muslim sisters.”

Jon: Wow.

Rana: That’s a moment that when you are, the core supporters of the government are questioning these policies and tactics.

Jon: If it’s coming from the right, so to speak—

Rana: Mm-hmm.

Jon: —if they’re being primary and they’re the ones that’s where the power would really get hollowed out from. Are you concerned? You know, martyrdom always has, uh, a very sort of vaunted place in, in all revolutionary movements. 

Rana: It’s interesting that on Twitter, when you read those who are out on the streets, they say, “Yes, over 70 people have been killed so far. But we don’t have time for that. We’ll come back later to mourn their death.”

Jon: Oh wow. OK.

Rana: So people don’t have time to just sit down and cry. They say, “No, there’s a bigger, uh, goal and we’re working towards that. And when we reach where we wanna reach, we’ll come back and mourn that.” So there’s a shift. 

Jon: What would they wanna reach then, you know, if–

Rana: Regime change.

Jon: Oh boy. So they’re trying to spur a true from the streets overturning of this government. And they won’t stop until they’re satisfied.

Rana: Yes. Yes. and the Islamic Republic had so many difficulties containing these protests. And one of which is that we’ve seen videos of security officers, um, being shouted at by their commanders to go forward and to beat up people. So clearly they don’t wanna do it.

Jon: These movements only succeed if you turn the police or if you turn the military. Has there been any sign that there is a change within those institutions, not just of sympathy, but of, “We are going to join our brothers and sisters. We are going to stand with them,” because wouldn’t that really be the change, the game change?

Rana: That will be a huge change. So far, the only sign that we’ve seen are those videos that are filmed secretly by people that show that there is these conversations and the commanders is are telling them, “We are doing the right thing. I want you not to be afraid.”

Jon: Right.

Rana: But we know that, you know, because of the economic deadlock, many of those officers are also suffering.

Jon: Right.

Rana: So they are not well off. They must be, um, unhappy with the situation. And some, I’m sure many of them would find it difficult to beat up these women. And don’t forget, these women who are, some of them are holding their hands, arms open. They’re walking towards these forces. And then, then they get beaten up.

Jon: Rana, what’s your relationship now with the country and with the government? Obviously, uh, you said your parents are there. Um, and that’s such a difficult situation for anybody who’s in a diaspora and living away from the country they love. But what is, what is your relationship now?

Rana: So, I lived in Iran for 25 years, went to university there, and then I, well, got a job offer from the BBC and I left Iran in 2008.

Jon: Oh wow.

Rana: And I haven’t been able to go back because the BBC is not allowed to, uh, work in Iran. We don’t have an office and in fact, many of our, uh, family members have been persecuted, harassed over the years.

Jon: Right.

Rana: Um, my parents’ passports were confiscated. They weren’t allowed to come out and visit me. And they were told that you, in order to get your passport back, you should ask your daughter to stop working for the BBC. And I said, “That’s not gonna happen.” And eventually they gave up. Um, so I haven’t been back, but I still have many relatives there. My parents, my brother, aunts, uncles, they’re all there.

Jon: And are you able to, to be in contact with them and for those who don’t understand, you know, BBC I think was only allowed in the country in 2009. There was sort of this weird— part of what happened in 2009 is they opened the country up for about a month before the elections to demonstrate to the world the grand nature of this democracy. And then obviously it all flipped on its head and everybody got kicked out. But, uh, is there, are you able to be in contact with all of your family and are they feeling this moment, and are they feeling optimistic?

Rana: That’s a great question. So up until before these protests, I could, uh, FaceTime my parents every day and I did. But now that many of these social media platforms are blocked, I have to actually phone them, uh, directly on the line.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Um, on which they don’t feel very comfortable to talk about politics—

Jon: I’m sure.

Rana: —because they feel that it’s easier to be, uh, bugged. Uh, but I remember that the two days after Mahsa’s death, um, there were calls for national strikes and protests. And I was on the phone with my mother who asked me where people who, whether I knew where people were gathering in Tehran, the capital, where they live. And I said, “Why do you wanna know?” She said, “Because I wanna go.”

Jon: Oh, dear Lord.

Rana: And I said, “Mom, you have bad knees and you have vertigo. Last thing you need is to be tear gassed.” And she said something that has stayed with me. She said, “You know what? If they wanna kill someone, I want them to kill us cause we’ve lived our lives. I don’t want them to kill the youth. They have all the, all their lives ahead of them.”

Jon: Rana, that’s just, that’s heartbreaking, truly. 

Rana: And there’s this sense of responsibility amongst them because my generation kept blaming them, “Look what you did to our lives.” So they feel, there’s this beautiful, uh, video of an elderly woman, probably older than my mom, who’s 71.

Jon: Yeah.

Rana: She’s got white hair. You can only see her from the back of her head. She can hardly walk. And in the end of the street you can see smoke and fire and protests. And she, hardly walking, with her head, scarf in her hand, chanting, “Death to dictator. Death to the dictator.” So we can now see all generations out there saying, saying, “We don’t want this life.”

Jon: It’s a remarkable moment. Going up against that kind of institutional governmental firepower is such a dangerous, and, is this a seminal moment or does the crackdown come and people have to retreat to their basements for the next, you know, the next chance? 

Rana: It’s the beginning of a very important chapter. I don’t think we should be overly optimistic about the outcome at this stage.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: But a lot of networks are being formed. But, I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves.

Jon: Right.

Rana: We’re seeing the birth of a movement that is slowly shaping, it’s slowly finding its slogans. It’s the fact of potential leaders, it’s building its networks. And as I said, they’re teenagers. Many of them are gamers. I don’t know what gamers are, but I have heard that in and that’s where they’re communicating with each other.

Jon: Now, now you’re talking my language. Now we got some, I’m probably playing, uh, you know, COD with these guys. I’m probably playing COD with revolutionaries in Iran as we speak. Uh, this is unbelievable.

Rana: And one more thing before we move on.

Jon: Yeah. Sure, sure, sure.

Rana: Something that has happened in the psyche of the protestors.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: Means we’re not going back to what it was before.

Jon: OK.

Rana: And that is when a teenage girl jumps on top of a police car, takes off her head scarf and says, “I don’t want the Islamic Republic,” with no fear in her eyes. She’s looking at the forces, um, there, something happens. It gives her confidence.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: She feels she can do this, something that didn’t occur to previous generations.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: They never thought that they could defend themselves. They never thought that they could stand up for their rights. So that’s why I think it’s very difficult after this to have guidance for this beating up, maybe at this stage for, to contain the protest, the government will have to do that, but it’s going to be very risky to try to suppress the Iranian youth from this moment on.

Jon: And the government as, as much as oppressive as they can be. Every country needs its youth. Every country needs its young people. You know, if you hollow out that infrastructure, even they can see that the corruption is going to collapse. And that’s why we see the speed at which some of these regimes collapse. You know, they really do. When it happens, boy, it’s, it happens in a cataclysm, you know, it really, it comes at it. Have you been able to be in contact with those on the street? Is there any opportunity for you to uh, get kind of eyewitness accounts?

Rana: We do.

Jon: Be able to share? OK.

Rana: Mm-hmm. We receive a lot of messages, obviously with difficulty.

Jon: Yeah.

Rana: Uh, of people who go to the protests and then they come back and they message us and they’ll tell us what’s happening in their neighborhood.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: But also again, on, on some, uh, live conversations on Twitter. I heard some of these young, uh, girls and boys are out on the street, and it was a fascinating conversation with older activists both inside the country.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Rana: And one of them asked these protestors, “What can we do to support you?” And they said, “Teach us how to fight and not get killed.”

Jon: Wow.

Rana: And I thought, “Oh, wow. This is, this is serious.”

Jon: Yeah. They’ve decided this is, they’ve crossed the Rubicon to some extent and it’s a change.

Rana: Yes.

Jon: You know, from the outside, the news can sometimes distort the, uh, how much the people are feeling, certain movements, we do that all the time here. It’s chaos at Portland, it’s Antifa fighting the proud boys and people that live in Portland are like, I’m having a latte, and there’s really nothing going on. Are –  

Rana: That’s true about Iran too, Jon.

Jon: – OK. Alright. I’m curious about whether or not people feel it in that moment.

Rana: So that’s what I was telling you. That’s what I was telling you. So there are pockets. So in Teran, for instance, we have Normac neighborhood or Tehranpars neighborhood, or Tarjish, small pockets of protestors coming out every night, chanting and burning head scarves, and then they go home. And the same is true about other cities. So we’re not looking at hundreds of thousands or millions of people marching down the streets, but we know that many of those people feel the same. But they, at this point, they’re not ready to come out on the streets.

Jon: Right.

Rana: When we might, whether we reach that point or when we reach that point, that would, that we have no idea.

Jon: But Rana, that in some ways that’s a more sustainable model you know, there was a certain moment in the Arab Spring where, where certain countries just decided, this is it. We’re shutting the country down until we get what we want. And we saw that those movements didn’t necessarily have the kind of staying power and longevity that they may have wanted. Maybe discretion is the better part of valor here. To take your time to have these, these protests that pop up and go back. You know, it’s young people, they’re popup stores, you know, they’re, they’re popping out. They do it, they go back. But all the while creating, as you were saying, that infrastructure, those connections, that network. How have the morality police responded to the outcry, uh, in Masa’s death? And are they, have they disappeared from view for the moment?

Rana: Apparently so. So I personally have received so many messages, um, on social media, people saying that, “Oh, what, there, used to be morality police in that part of the city, and they have disappeared.” So, and today there was a striking photo that many Iranians found emotional of two women in a cafe in downtown Tehran, having tea, wearing no head scars. So they were just in a t-shirt and a, and trousers.

Jon: In public.

Rana: In public. And they were –

Jon: And were they being harassed?

Rana: – Brave enough. No. They were just sitting there like any normal country. They were just sitting there and having their tea, and they were brave enough to tweet that photo saying that “we just came back for your information. We just had coffee in Djibouti, area of Tehran” with their own name.

Jon: Wow, OK.

Rana: And that’s, and that’s, that’s why I think we can’t go back because now there is a crack in that image of an unbreakable, um, dictator. You think, “No, we can do this.” And there’s another footage that I wanna tell you about. There’s a young woman standing on a podium and there are morality, police, women covered in black veil. Everything black. You can just, so they’re officers or morality police officers, and this young woman in some trousers and a loose shirt, but no head scarf is standing there and she’s looking at them and they’re trying to arrest her. And she said, “Nope, you’re not touching me, and I’m not going with you. You cannot do anything to me.” They try to pull her down. She jumps back up there and say, “No, I told you, you are not allowed to touch me.”

Jon: Wow. I mean, the bravery is, is incredible. It really is. I mean, it’s stunning. And I, know that a lot of really brave people have been killed and probably a lot more than we know about.

Rana: Yes. And probably a lot more will be killed.

Jon: Uh, Rana, I, I can’t thank you  enough for spending time. Is there any final, uh, thought? You know, we like to consider ourselves the center of the universe. We always end with like, what can we do, because God forbid something happened in the world that we are not central in. But is there anything that the Iranian people would take heart to? Anything that would give them some feeling of, of uplift other than, uh, letting Iran win the upcoming World Cup? 

Rana: [RANA LAUGHS] I think at this point, more coverage and the support that the Iranians are receiving from, from politicians, famous people. Sometimes just a hashtag, you know, means a lot to them.

Jon: Really? OK.

Rana: Yes. Yes. It means a lot to them because they just wanna know that the world is also paying attention and the world is seeing them.

Jon: That they are not forgotten.

Rana: And more importantly, they need the internet. They need to be connected because, –

Jon: So this Elon Musk Starlink is a big deal. If that can go through and get them those links.

Rana: Yes.

Jon: That could be a really big deal.

Rana: Yes. But my understanding is that he needs infrastructure that doesn’t exist in Iran. So I, I don’t know the technical aspect of it, but I’ve heard that it’s going to be complicated.

Jon: Right. I apologize for the reductive and kind of ignorance that—

Rana: No, no, no. It was, it was lovely.

Jon: —But you know what I mean. We just don’t know in a sophisticated way what happens there and our view of the world is generally myopic. So I’m saying, me actually. 

Rana: I hope that it just brings more attention in, in the States, because I’ve heard that there hasn’t been much coverage of it. 

Jon: But I think right now it’s so hard to even get access to footage to people, anything. It’s really hard. 

Rana: It is hard. It is hard. But that symbolic videos and, uh, photos of women burning down their head scarves and standing on top of cars, I’m surprised that it hasn’t captured the imagination of the Americans as much because in the region, there’s support from Turkish women. There support from, uh, Syrian women. Even yesterday there were some support in which women in Syria, the Kurdish, uh, parts of Syria, they marched in thousands and they started cutting their hair in  to show solidarity. 

Jon: And I think also in this country, because of what is happening to women’s rights here, I mean, as Iran’s women are demanding, more American women are receiving less. I mean they’re we’re, we’re actually moving back towards that—

Rana: Yeah. Cause—[RANA LAUGHS]

Jon: —Yeah, it’s going back the other way. So, we’re, well, yeah, so I’m surprised as well that it hasn’t had that, that kind of reaction, but—

Rana: Yes, because it’s kind of, it could potentially be the Middle East Me Too movement.

Jon: Yeah. 

Rana: And funnily enough in the Iranian society women in general are stronger. And I think it’s because you have to survive. My mom always said, I have two older brothers, and my mom always said that I should have been her son because I’m the one who is risk taking and trouble making and all that.

Jon: Right.


Jon: Keep making trouble Rana. Thank you so much for joining us. Rana Rahimpour, she is the BBC News Persian journalist. Boy, safety and good wishes to all of your family that is in Iran. Thank you so much for Joining us.

Rana: Thank you so much, Jon. It’s lovely to speak to you.

Jon: Very lovely to speak with you as well. Bye-bye.

Interview with Rana Rahimpour Ends


Jon: Wow, so, uh, Rana Rahimpour, from the BBC we’re gonna bring back Reza and Alexa. Uh, what powerful, uh, testimony to what’s happening on the streets. 

Alexa: That was amazing. 

Jon: In Iran.

Reza: Yeah.

Jon: The things that really struck me. I mean, that story about, uh, the woman who would rather be killed. She’s lived her life and why not me?

Alexa: Yeah.

Reza: She said it was her mother, yeah.

Jon: Imagine that, her mother!

Reza: It’s one of the things that makes this feel different than like, say the 2009 Green Movement is— 

Jon: Right. 

Reza: It’s young people, but you’ve also got literal grandmothers out there. You’ve got, from what I’ve heard, you, you have conservatives out there. You have a mix of different people and supposedly in all 31 provinces, which is, that’s a big deal.

Jon: That’s crazy. 

Alexa: Yeah. The bravery involved is sort of like, just impossible to fathom. I feel like. 

Reza: Yes.

Alexa: From, from being over here, I mean, anytime I go to a protest, I just immediately start crying. And that’s at like a march for Science.

Jon: Do they have marches for science?

Alexa: They did, yeah.

Jon: Are you sure that’s not a science fair? [LAUGHTER]

Alexa: Didn’t we march for science? I could have swore that was one of them. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: I’ll tell you what I was struck by and I think, uh, is when she said, you know what she goes through to just communicate with her parents every day. And I’m like, my mother lives 30 minutes away. Like, I don’t, I’m gonna have to make sure she doesn’t hear this podcast. 

Reza: Yeah.

Jon: Cause she’s gonna call me and go, Oh, so Rana’s parents got a VPN so they could talk, [LAUGHTER] but, but you, you just live up the road. Why don’t you, why don’t you get a VPN?

Reza: I, one of the things that took to me, that I’ve also heard a lot from people that I’ve talked to back in Iran right now is you know, just them, It’s harder without the internet now, but knowing that people are talking about them has been a huge fuel to them as far as hope goes. Do you guys know who Yung Blood is, cuz I didn’t. He’s a singer, he’s like a punk singer. He’s got like the red hair and mascara and everything.

Jon: What’s the name?

Reza: Yung Blood.

Jon: Yeah. I know that a lot of people are young. Yes. And by the way, generally not spelled not young. 

Reza: Yes. it’s only got the u no o’s. Yep.

Jon: Can I tell you something? It’s been very difficult for me to get past the grammatical errors since some of the artists, [LAUGHTER] the Lils, the Baby’s – 

Reza: But he, he brought it up at a concert the other day. He’s like yelling into the crowd, like, “for the women of Iran, I will not be silent” and all the Iranians were like, “Thank you Mr. Yung Blood. You’ve just gained your biggest fan – me, Parviv, I love you.’ [LAUGHTER] You know, like, it’s just, them hearing from anybody is gigantic to them. You know, uh, and I know you were asking Rana, you know, what can we do here? One of the things that I’ve heard a lot from people there is, you know, because of sanctions right now, uh, because US sanctions, they can’t get simple medical supplies that they need desperately right now.

Jon: Right.

Reza:. With these protests.

Jon: How is it though that, you know, cuz I always look at sanctions as, you know, you’re gonna hurt. Because even with the sanctions over these 40 years, you know, the corrupt elites in Iran are richer than rich.

Reza: Yeah. Oh yeah.

Jon: And billions and billions of dollars, they’re still, you know, the oil industry there is gigantic. And they still have, listen, everybody’s got customers for that. So what are we doing with saying, we certainly haven’t crippled the people we’re supposed to be crippling with them, and it seems like it’s just brought great hardship to a people that are very clearly yearning to breathe free. 

Reza: I mean, it has, and it’s part of the sanction thing that, that I don’t understand is I get the first part it’s like we’re gonna put so much pressure on the people, whether this is right or not, we’re gonna put so much pressure on the people that they will rise, basically. Like we’re gonna make it so bad for – 

Jon: How, how long does that take?

Reza: Yeah. Apparently 43 years. But the other thing is, well, what’s, what’s the other side to that? They’re supposed to rise and do what exactly? If that’s your goal, if your goal is to make people rise, what are you hoping is the next part to that, who’s the leader? 

Jon: That was what I was asking Rana about is cuz I’d seen that in Egypt, when they finally got what they wanted and Mubarak was, was booted, they did not have that second layer, of, you know, functioning governance of organization of the kinds of things, you know, the kind of the brass tax logistics post-revolution.

Reza: Yeah.

Jon: But the Muslim Brotherhood did. And those theocratic institutions have such an advantage in chaos because they are the only organized, uh, really groups generally in that region.

Reza: Religion in general, by nature is already organized. You know what I mean? Like even if you look at Catholicism or any, any religion here, you know what I’m saying? You’ve already got these networks built.

Jon: By the way, look how we’re moving in those directions. We’re absolutely moving in a direction as less people identify as religious in the country. The growing movement of theocrats.

Reza: Well you know, there’s a micromanagement of religion and it tends to be very joyless. Take a look at even what the movements they attack are. Like even abortion contraception in its nature is a very joyless thing to be like, we don’t want people having sex anymore. You know? And when you look at Iran, it’s obviously on the other extreme, but you can’t dance. You can’t sing, uh, you can’t wear what you want. You, uh, you don’t have these basic rights that people just enjoy. 

Jon: And by the way, very sexy people. 

Reza: [ALEXA LAUGHS] Absolutely.

Jon: Reza, I’m not saying that, but like taking that away from them. Like, you wanna take that away from, I’m just gonna throw this out there, Belgium. Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah. You’re not gonna, No, nobody’s gonna miss it. You take that away from Iranians though. I mean, just how colorful life in Iran.

Reza: Yeah. Oh yeah.

Jon: How beautiful. How poetic, how, how much cinema mattered, how much art mattered. How much books and literature mattered and color and joy. I think that Reza, that’s a great way of putting it, that joy.

Reza: And the sad thing is all that you mentioned that still does matter, but it just matters underground now, which is like, so, which is insane, again you don’t even, you can’t have satellite tv. You can’t watch what you want. You can’t do what you want. 

Jon: Uh, for them to not allow people to watch Riverdale. [ALEXA LAUGHS]

Reza: Give Riverdale to the people. And that’s, it’s what they’re chanting in the streets and it’s heartwarming.

Alexa: “Life to Riverdale.”

Reza: Yes. Women, life, Riverdale.


Jon: So for anybody wondering we should probably put some resources up for those who are interested in following and supporting, uh, the women in Iran who are standing up. And at great risk and terrible peril, uh, and find ways to maybe, uh, support those. We wanna thank Rana Rahimpour, the BBC journalist for coming here for, for talking to us about that. Alexa and Reza who brought facts, knowledge, fascination. It’s very rare that you will see firsthand knowledge of a country, uh, going through this kind of, uh, tumult and revolution and Lord of The Rings very rarely.

Alexa: You never know when it’s gonna pop up.

Jon: You never know when it’s gonna pop up. Our show is  Apple TV+ season two, October 7th. I don’t even know what day this is coming out, but it’s before October 7th.

Reza: I don’t even know what day today is.

Jon: I’m not even gonna say it. We’re taping this. We’re taping this in 2019. [LAUGHTER] And I’m gonna say this “a pandemic is coming people”. The podcast is back weekly, coming out on Wednesday. This is the part I hate. I’m always like, you know, where, where you’re doing all the, like, you can watch our show on Apple TV+ it’s called The Problem. Click on the link.

Reza: I’m Jon Stewart.

Jon: And a virus will pop up and take you to porn sites. Um, alright. Uh, good stuff guys. Thank you. And we’ll see y’all next week.

Reza: Thanks Jon.

Alexa: Ta Ta.


Jon: “The Problem with Jon Stewart Podcast” is an Apple TV+ podcast and a joint Busboy Production.