Last month, protests erupted in Iran after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, was killed by Iranian authorities for not wearing her hijab properly. It became an international story for all the obvious reasons, including teenage girls flipping the bird to some of the scariest men in the world. So I turned immediately to my friend and Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, who understands the dynamics in the country perhaps better than anyone outside its borders.
Jason and I met shortly after his release from the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, where he had served a year and a half, much of it in solitary confinement, on bogus charges of espionage. Jason and his incredible wife Yeganeh, an Iranian journalist who was also imprisoned for several months, were freed as part of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and they became instant celebrities when they moved to Washington upon their release. (Jason has written a book about his experience, which was also made into a podcast.)
But as we grew close, I could see that the torment did not end with the prison gates being flung open. The trauma lingered for years. Yegi’s parents were still trapped in Iran and she was unable to see them because of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. We bonded over what it’s like to leave your family behind forever, thinking that you’ll never see them again. Thankfully, both my family’s and Yegi’s stories had a happy ending: shortly before the pandemic, her parents were guests in my home, bearing a gift of Persian saffron.
Over the last couple of weeks, as Russia fired Iranian-made drones into Kyiv, our fields of expertise intertwined and I decided to call up Jason and talk to him about the changing relationship between Moscow and Tehran, as well as the protests, which are now in their second month. My conversation with the brilliant, empathetic, and generally wonderful Jason has been edited for clarity and length. I hope you found it as illuminating as I did.
Julia Ioffe: The protests in Iran have been going on for more than a month. Do you think the demonstrations will have any positive impact on Iran or will they have the opposite effect and trigger a crackdown?
Jason Rezaian: I think it has the potential for both. I think that there is potential for a crackdown that results in a lot of people getting hurt, dying and arrested; we are already seeing that happen. Whether it leads to some major positive change is the question that’s been attached to every previous round of protests going back to the early 2000s, most famously [to the failed Green Revolution of] 2009. In 2009, it was, Where’s my vote? It was about a fraudulent election.
I was there, and I believe that if most people had felt free enough to say so, they would have been calling for the end of the regime as they are right now. But they didn’t feel that confidence. They were trying to create as much space for dissent as possible within the rigid confines of the Islamic Republic’s rules. This time around, people are just ignoring those rules, and that’s really different. When people are coming out and saying Death to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, down with the Islamic Republic, that’s not very ambiguous.
I think putting the genie back in the bottle seems impossible. We see more and more images of women walking around in cities small and big without hijab. That’s not something that any of us could have imagined two months ago. Does that mean that the Islamic Republic is going to make hijab optional? I don’t think so. But, you know, as you and your parents and millions of people across the Soviet Union experienced 30-something years ago, one day the whole thing is there and then suddenly it’s not. What we’re trying to figure out is if we’re approaching that moment right now.
Well, that moment in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not triggered by events on the street. It was the elites carving up the U.S.S.R. Is there a fracture of the elites happening in Iran? Is there an obvious leader who could take protests and run with them?
There’s no obvious leader at this point. I think that’s the problem: the Islamic Republic has been really good at snuffing out opposition, killing and jailing or exiling their most prominent critics. Within the system, in the Islamic Republic, there is so much bad blood and ill will that there isn’t anybody that people look to and say, this is a credible person that we would like to rally around. Leaderless movements are able to get people out into the street. But then what? And that’s where it gets interesting and complicated. You also have different people and groups in the diaspora saying, It’s us that’s leading this from afar. And to me, that’s disingenuous and dangerous for the people who are on the ground and probably a recipe for more disaster.
First of all, there’s almost nobody outside the country who’s in that role that’s been inside Iran within the last decade. It’s the kind of society that is cut off from the rest of the world in a lot of ways, information-wise. But if you’re not there, how can you pretend to know the pain of the people, especially when you’re in the diaspora? You have so many folks who have been calling for the most brutal sanctions on Iran for a long time, for the purpose of inciting these kinds of uprisings. There’s a group of people who were either born in the diaspora or left at a very young age for whom—it’s like they’re playing a video game. They think they have all the answers.
We’re at this moment now, whether or not you agreed with Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, we’re seeing some of the effects playing out now. People are disaffected with their prospects in life. They don’t see a positive future for themselves or their children. What’s missing, though, is a ready alternative. I, for one, who was born in the diaspora, am willing to say that this is a shortcoming of the millions of Iranians who’ve been living in democratic societies for 40 years or more. We haven’t been able to figure this out. You know how they say people get the government that they deserve? Well, I think this diaspora has gotten the government back in their own country that they deserve.
But is it possible to figure it out, especially from exile? It’s kind of a catch-22, right? Either they’re outside the country and have no credibility, or they’re inside the country and are immediately jailed.
Yes, a total catch-22. And I honestly think that the Achilles heel of the Islamic Republic still hasn’t been exposed yet. The hypocrisy, the corruption, the misogyny, all of those are well known facets of it. Nobody is even denying it. But what’s the thing that’ll bring it to its knees? I don’t know.
Do you think these protests will peter out like the ones in 2009 and in 2019?
I think they will slow down. It’s already slowed down in Baluchistan and in Kurdistan. There are still people out in the street every night in Tehran, but people are on their rooftops. That’s not the same thing as fighting hand-to-hand with security forces. But, you know, one of the built-in booby traps that the Islamic Republic has is Shia Islam. The anniversaries of deaths in particular are opportunities for people to come out into the streets. In a few weeks, in November, you’re going to have the anniversary of the uprising in 2019 when something like 1,500 people were killed. People will come out.
What we’ve seen since 2009—and more recently, since 2017—is that the pace of protests has picked up. They’ve touched more parts of the country—cities but also small villages—and you see disparate parts of the society rising up regularly in a way that you hadn’t before. I think that’s the core difference right now. Women who, obviously, represent half of the country. Arab Iranians, Kurdish, Baluchi, Azeris. All of these people have come out and protested in large numbers, almost simultaneously, which is unheard of.
Was it meaningful that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish?
I think her being a Kurdish woman was a double whammy for the regime. The Kurdish population in Iran is at least 10 million people. That’s a lot of people who have felt marginalized for more than 40 years, though it also goes back into the Pahlavi regime. It’s the largest ethnic group in the world that doesn’t have a country and they are rightfully not happy about being subjugated. People who not only are a different ethnicity, but also different religion: the vast majority of the Iranian Kurds are Sunni, not Shia. That played a role, especially in the early days of the protests. Sanandaj, which is the Kurdish provincial capital, is where this all kicked off and they haven’t had a day of normal, calm life for 40-plus days. But whereas the Islamic Republic would say this is a secession or separatist movement, all of the Kurds that I talk to say, Hey, we’re Iranian and we want our place in this country as we’ve had it for thousands of years. We want equal rights. We want legal representation.
Why do you think so many non-Kurdish Iranians have rallied behind Mahsa Amini?
The ingrained misogyny of the system is something that women across the board have been rebelling against since the day that the regime started doing forced hijab, which was a couple of weeks after the Islamic Republic was founded. If you look at the trajectory of women in Iranian society, they have become increasingly educated.
Starting during the Iran-Iraq War, when millions of men were going to the front, women went to school. When unemployment was very high in the early 2000s, young guys were basically unemployed so they became taxi drivers or motorcycle delivery people; women went and got master’s degrees. So the level of education of women is higher. They do every job in Iranian society that men do except for the top jobs in government and judges. They are sought after for being employees because they work for less pay. It’s kind of natural that at some point a group that’s pulling much more than half of the society’s weight is going to reject the kind of violent enforcement of what they can wear according to the judgment of some unemployed, uneducated thug who says, I don’t feel like you have your hair covered properly.
Mahsa Amini is not the first person this has happened to. It just so happened that there were images of her and images of her on life support. These were circulated quickly on social media. It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back because the Islamic Republic executes people on a scale like no other country in the world. It’s spilling blood constantly. But every once in a while there’s a moment like this.
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What are your friends and family in Iran saying?
Because of the fact that people need multiple VPNs to get online, we’ve just had a really hard time communicating with people on the ground for weeks. When you’re cut off like that, and when text messages are cut off internally in the country, or when the cell service is cut off so people can’t call each other at certain times of day, it’s really disconcerting and confusing. In those kinds of situations, a lot of disinformation can really proliferate. In those vacuums, rumors circulate and people have a lot of hope.
Given that the U.S. has played a pretty ignominious role in Iranian history, especially in 1953, is there a role for America to play now at all? Do Iranians want America to play a role? Or is the Biden administration doing the right thing by staying away from this?
First of all, I think that the Biden administration hasn’t stayed as far away as the Obama administration did in 2009. They’re playing a potentially more constructive role than the Trump administration did in 2017.
The Trump folks were all about fanning the protests and saying, We’re with you, we’re with you, we’re with you. While, at the same time, they had a travel ban on Iran that made it impossible for them to come to this country. Biden lifted that travel ban. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, that because of the travel ban, we lost all contact with human intelligence there over the last five years. You didn’t have the opportunity to sit down across a table with Iranians of any stripe to get a feel for what’s going on on the ground. That’s been lifted and now they say that they want to streamline the process for dissidents to come to this country and to contribute to an understanding of current realities within Iran for the purpose of affecting our overall Iran policy, which has been myopically focused on its nuclear program for 20 years, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Because of that myopic approach, we lost sight of everything else.
I think that these protests really caught the U.S. by surprise and they’re still trying to figure out what they can and should do about it. I think that the message coming from the White House and the National Security Council has been pretty clear: We’re in favor of supporting the protesters and now isn’t the time to be negotiating with the Islamic Republic. I’m not sure the State Department has the exact same feeling, and if you know look at the statements coming from both shops, they’re slightly different. I don’t think that that bodes particularly well.
Is there a role for the U.S. to play?
I do think that there is a role for the United States to play, but it should take a couple of different forms: targeted sanctions against Iranian leaders, like the people who are most actively involved in oppressing the people in Iran; streamlining the process to engage with dissidents; and doing whatever we can to keep Iranians online. Because no freedom movement in the 21st century is going to be able to succeed if people are not able to coordinate with each other by smartphone.
Do you think the power dynamic between Russia and Iran is changing because the former is turning to the latter for drones to fight the war in Ukraine?
This is a marriage of convenience. It always has been. Iranians don’t have a great feeling about Russia going back to the 19th century. They feel like they’ve been screwed by Russia more than once. But I think right now, the reality is they don’t have any other friends besides China. But I think China is looking at both Iran and Russia and seeing that they’re not reliable partners.
Well, that’s the thing. Russia doesn’t have many other friends, so the fact that it’s turning to Iran for help, where it is used to positioning itself as the bigger, more technologically advanced brother. Do you think this gives Iran or does this give Iranians or the Iranian regime at all a feeling that maybe the field is evening out a bit?
Yes. I think that’s a safe assessment. And it’s just crazy to me that they’ve gone all in on supporting Russia. What happens if this all falls apart for Russia? What happens if Putin falls? And where does the Islamic Republic stand? Nowhere.
So why do you think they’ve gone all in?
I think because they feel that their system is potentially facing mortal threat from its own people. I think the longevity of the regime has more to do with its legitimacy in the rest of the world rather than at home. But the Islamic Republic can no longer make the case that it has legitimacy at home. For years, it could. They’d hold elections, people would come out and vote for reformist candidates. But all of that went out the window when they installed Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 and have shown literally no ability to answer any of the demands of Iranian people. Their financial well-being is worse year after year. The value of the currency today is a tenth of what it was less than a decade ago. That’s nuts. This is the country with the highest oil and gas reserves in the world and the spending power of its people at a time when the price of oil is pretty darn high is literally nothing.
I wanted to ask you a more personal question. What went through your mind when, earlier this month, when Evin prison erupted in flames—the result of a fire, an explosion, and gun violence—and you saw loved ones calling to their imprisoned relatives to check if they’re okay?
I don’t get triggered very easily and that, for me, was incredibly triggering. I reached out to some other people who have done time in Evin, released before and after me, many people that I’ve gotten to know. Some of them actually I knew before I ever went to prison. And we all have that similar feeling. It’s such a horrible place. It’s a hopeless place. I spent a lot of nights thinking to myself—when the guard locked the cell of my door in the isolation wing—what would happen if there was an electrical fire in the middle of the night? There’s nobody there. There’s nobody for me to call. It’s an iron door behind an iron door behind an iron door behind three brick walls. And even with my very svelte prison body, I wasn’t going to be scaling those prison walls, Julia. It brought some of that hopelessness back.
At the same time, to see that place, which is such a symbol of the repression of the Islamic Republic billowing with smoke, it was kind of exhilarating. It was a combination of all of those feelings, but then also the knowledge that this is not a place where information flows out of very seamlessly or accurately. The latest reports that I saw were that eight people had died. I don’t believe that. There were many more than that. There’s thousands of people in that prison.
It also just takes you back to a really hard time in your own existence and then to look around and see other people commenting on it, people who have been there. It was kind of a point of pride. We survived that.