Hadi Ghaemi is an internationally recognized expert on Iran and human rights. In 2008, he founded the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a leading organization documenting human rights violations in Iran and building international coalitions to support human rights. Born in Iran, Ghaemi came to the United States in 1983 as a student, and later became a professor of physics at CUNY as an expert in nanophysics. His other past work focused international attention on the plight of migrant workers in Dubai, as well as the repression of civil society in Iran.
Join us for the latest episode of All About Change as Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the independent Center for Human Rights in Iran, discusses the reaction of Iranians within Iran and around the world to the death of Mahsa Amini. Women and students are leading this protest movement that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. How does it fit into the recent history of protest in Iran, what is different about this wave of protests that Ghaemi calls an “evolution,” and what does it mean for Iranians who live there and in the diaspora?
[Overlapping Iranian Protest Voices]
Hadi Ghaemi: In a public place when you pick on half of the population and show that you can treat them any way you want at any moment without any clear guidelines or laws or definitions of why they are guilty of uh, infringement, you are showing the entire population that we are in charge. You’re really flexing your muscle and women have been victim of that.
Jay: hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to a special episode of All About Change.
Jay VO: We are devoting our show today to the Hijab protests in Iran. To the many brave activists risking their lives to bring about change. Protests that started with the Death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s so called ‘morality police’.
Hadi Ghaemi: Why couldn’t they say, Okay, we’re gonna identify the agents who put her on that van and we’re gonna find out exactly what happened and maybe hold someone accountable.
Jay: And to guide us through it, I’ve invited Hadi Ghaemi, an internationally recognized expert on Iran and the founder and executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Hadi Ghaemi: Women in Iran already suffer from such a huge discrimination in the workplace, in courthouses, in every public and private place, they’re subjugated to the rule of the state so that they never get to fulfill their individual potential.The death of an ordinary citizen touched on the consciousness of a nation that you see in hundreds of cities and towns began small all over the country. People on their own came out. Nobody made a call for it. And they have continued to do that a month and a half later, every day.
[Iranian Protest Voices]
Hadi Ghaemi: There is no turning back. It is a moment of change and it is gonna be a marathon.
Jay Ruderman: Hadi Ghaemi, thank you so much for being my guest today on all About Change.
Hadi Ghaemi: Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: You were born in Iran, moved to the United States in 1983. What was Iran like when you were living there?
Hadi Ghaemi: I grew up in Iran during the turbulent time of the revolution in 1978, 79, even though I was very young, the whole social scene was very much consumed by the revolution. In September ‘78, when I entered sixth grade, within a few weeks, schools were shut down.
They were embroiled in protests. And then the teachers and the entire country went on strike. So we did not have a school basically from September to March of 1978-79, we were on the streets. The streets were our educational spaces and the entire country was embroiled in activism. I personally spent a lot of time on university campuses who had become, again, just like today a major hub of protests, activism. And then experienced the aftermath of the revolution, which was one of the most depressing experiences I would say anyone could have in life. After all the hope and aspirations for freedoms during the revolution, within a few months after the revolution, we started to see completely the opposite of it and of a very, draconian regime of repression taking place, which then really, throughout the 1980s, the country became a very dark place with tens of thousands of people in jail and thousands of people executed and basically consolidation of power by the Islamic, uh, Republic.
What I saw there was very formative for my life. I was primarily an academic. I was a professor of physics up to 2000 and, but in the late nineties with the arrival of internet, the country opened up and suddenly I had, much better view of what is happening in the country. And I finally traveled there in October, 2000 for the first time. And that was a time of a relative opening in Iran of what was called the Reform Movement back then, and looked like there is hope for building a better future peacefully through a peaceful transition. And having experienced the revolution and its aftermath, I really felt obligated as a member of that generation to be part of this transition. I realized that the most, uh, unifying demand in Iran is respect for human rights regardless of political persuasions. I, myself, having hoped that human rights would be improved after the ‘79 revolution and it had not, felt obligated to really start focusing on it for the future of the country. So for the past 20 years, I’ve been focusing all my efforts in promoting human rights and the human rights community in Iran on the international stage.
Clip of Iranian Woman Protester: They were shooting us from another side. They were waiting to arrest us. We experienced all these moments because of what? What was our fault? We were just, Asking for our basic human rights, for the freedom of our friends who did nothing wrong.
Jay Ruderman: And how do you see, what’s your sense from your contacts, I know you’re involved directly with people in Iran. How do you see the situation in the country right now?
Hadi Ghaemi: I call it an evolution. Evolution of a protest movement that really started to take shape around 2015, 2016. Basically beginning 2015, it became clear that the ruling class in Iran had decided that they own the country and people are irrelevant and they decoupled themself completely. But what I can tell you that since September 17th of this year when the protests started, the majority of Iranians we talk to are saying there is no turning back. There is no way that even with extreme violence and repression, anyone can go back home and resume relationships between the state and society or even within society, the way it was. It is a moment of change and it is gonna be a marathon.
Jay Ruderman: You mentioned the ruling class. We know that the country is, governed by the Ayatollah Khamenei. Who else is in the ruling class?
Hadi Ghaemi: The Supreme leader is really the one man who is running the show. And the revolutionary guards as an institution, like an octopus with many tentacles has started to take over every aspect of society. Not only now they control the political class, they basically installed the current President Raisi. They do enjoy full support of the Supreme leader, but he is old and probably on the last legs of his life. But again, for the past decade, the revolutionary guards has made sure to eliminate even the most loyal elements to the point that in the last presidential election in 2021, the revolutionary guards managed to purge the sitting speaker of the Parliament who was going to run for presidency, Ali Larijani.
Then they also purged the head of judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, who happens to be Ali Larijani’s brother, who was among them a prominent Ayatollah and a potential replacement for Khamenei. Revolutionary guards now control the executive branch, the judicial branch, and the legislative branch.
Jay Ruderman: We mentioned Khamenei and that, that he is old and, and not in great health. What’s the pathway to leadership, when he’s gone?
Hadi Ghaemi: Today, there is no single cleric either in terms of religious authority or political authority that is an obvious choice. There is talk of Khamenei’s son whom nobody has ever heard. He never appeared publicly anywhere. There are only some photos and details of who he is, but he’s had no public persona. But he seems to be very close to revolutionary guards. He was the mover and shaker behind the green movement crackdown. But it would be really ironic that after overthrowing a monarchy and criticizing hereditary rule to come and reproduce it. So most probably revolutionary guards are going to have a figurehead to replace Khamenei, who’s really not, um, very much well known or has much power. But honestly given the current situation of the country, if Khamenei were to pass away or die during these times in the coming year, I think the entire Islamic revolution is just going to have a shake up and become a fully militaristic state and doesn’t have to bother with the Supreme leader under the Constitution. There is a possibility of that kind of shakeup and there is a possibility of creating, uh, basically a military conflagration with a neighboring country or an outside power.
Again, Iran, Iraq War. Khamenei called it a gift from God because he was engaged in so much political dramas, consolidating power domestically, that the war gave them the right to declare the country, you know, engage in a war and anybody making political noise or dissent in the country was the fifth column of the enemy.
So I’ve seen signatures of that in the way they attacked Iraqi Kurdistan early on in this protest, hoping to cause a military conflagration on the border. Then they went and did maneuvers in the border with Azerbaijan trying to provoke some kind of action there. At the end of the day, the issue of succession may be mute, uh,moot, because they will just become, ah, if they are still in power, try to become a fully militaristic dictatorship and a foreign war would be the best gift to make it happen for them.
Jay Ruderman: There have been other uprisings in the recent past that were put down by the regime. What do you see as different about this current uprising?
Hadi Ghaemi: In physics, we call this a phase transition. Basically, a moment has arrived where you have moved from a given condition to a brand new situation where the past really is not, uh, indicator of the present and the future. And by that I mean if you look at the green movement of 2009, the uprisings of January 2016 and November 2018, and several smaller ones, uh, up to now.
They always were very specific, like the green movement was really about electoral fraud and integrity of elections.We had up to a million people in June 2009 in Tehran. but it did not touch on a national consciousness that would make ordinary people take up its mantle. The same thing happened in November 2019. It was the economic grievances. Today, what we saw on September 17 is a vast majority of a nation on their own. Without anyone calling on them, without any politician or events like an election triggering it. The death of an ordinary citizen touched on the consciousness of a nation that you see in hundreds of cities and towns big and small all over the country. People on their own came out. Nobody made a call for it. And they have continued to do that a month and a half later, every day.
So in that sense it’s different. It’s much more spontaneous, much more nationwide. And if I may add. It is led by a young generation who has learned the lesson that not being proactive and taking matters into your own hands means that you have no future.
Clip of Iranian Woman Protester: We’re protesting for a better life. Of course, a lot of choices were taken away from us, especially women under this regime. It’s not just about hijab, it’s about the choice of living however we want.
Jay Ruderman: You’ve been quoted as saying that Mahsa Amini was one of among countless victims of the Islamic Republic’s war on women. Can you talk to us about when you heard about her death and how you took that news?
Hadi Ghaemi: We started becoming aware of her when pictures of her in coma came out of a hospital in Tehran, and it was very clear that she had suffered from a concussion to her brain with blood bleeding out of her ears and nose. It became a symbol for war on women because so many hundreds of thousands of women in Iran have been subjected to that humiliation and exertion of authority. Subjugation by the authority in public life. So many women have been picked up by morality police, and have gone through her experience and several have died. I really felt that this was the epic moment when, uh, this war on women had become so intolerable by the Iranian woman. That the protests following it the next day made a lot of sense. And the anger that came out from ordinary people and the chanting of a woman life freedom.
Jay Ruderman: What did Mahsa Amini do that drew the attention of the police and, and, and cause them to take her physically and bring her to prison and beat her on the way?
Hadi Ghaemi: Very good question because actually if you look at the videos of her published by government itself during the few hours she was alive in the detention center, she’s actually dressed very modestly and has multiple layer of robes and head covering, and you really wonder why, because there are many women already in Tehran who were not obeying hijab and showing their hair or even taking it off more or less for years.
It was really questionable that why she would even be considered to be wearing improper hijab. She’s a 22 year old woman from a small town in Kurdistan. It is late summer and just like anywhere else in the world, people travel. She is in Tehran with her family as a tourist. Just the ordinary Iranian woman with no record of activism or political tendencies, nothing. She comes out of a metro station with her brother. The morality police are placed in every corner of large public spaces, such as where she coming out to the street. She was picked up on purely personal decision that is making these security forces so dangerous. So the person who picked on her, starts getting violent and then throws her in a van. We know in the van there was violenc,e and therefore it is not really any procedure or laws being followed. It’s just having thousands of thugs in the name of security and morality force empowered to do whatever they want to individual citizens.
To me, it is really an indication of the arbitrary and limitless authority given to security forces to treat people, especially women, uh, based on their whim. And that’s why I say it’s a symbol of state repression. Really in a public place, when you pick on half of the population and show that you can treat them any way you want at any moment without any clear guidelines or laws or definitions of why they are guilty of, uh, infringement, you are showing the entire population that we are in charge. You’re really flexing your muscle and women have been victim of that.
Jay Ruderman: So what do you think public opinion is towards the hijab in Iran?
Hadi Ghaemi: The public opinion, I would say for more than a decade, is in favor of separation of mosque and politics. Even though people may remain religious in their personal lives, uh, they do not support at all combining religion and politics or somehow giving religious authorities political legitimacy. And the same with hijab, since some people are religious and would like to observe hijab, and others are not, the public opinion has been that it has to be a choice and you cannot make it a political weapon.
That’s why you’re seeing actually women with very strict hijab are participating in the anti hijab demonstrations in the past two months. But let me just say as much as this is the core of this uprising and part of it, anything Iranian government would do on hijab will not solve anything. It’s just too little too late.
Jay Ruderman: Right. We’ve seen so many groups uniting on this. Uh, people of different ages, genders, ethnic minorities, um, women, unemployed unions, uh, expressing anger and loss of patience with, with the state. If you could boil it all down, what is this protest?
Hadi Ghaemi: This is really about the collapse or implosion of every fabric of, that holds the society together and gives legitimacy to its political structure. In the past six years, the word implosion or collapse has entered political discourse in Iran. In Persian it’s called furu pashi, which means things coming apart completely. And why that has happened, let’s just start with the social collapse. And the biggest symbol of it is really this whole issue of morality police, and women’s rights as a social issue that, women in general, religious and non-religious have come to the conclusion that, the hijab and the social contract that the state has put in place between itself and women of the country for the past 44 years, is no longer tenable. Nobody believes in it. It has nothing to do with chastity or vice. And it has everything to do with political terror really. And, subjugation. Then we reach the economic collapse. The fact that revolutionary guards have taken over every pillar of economic activity.
I mean, if you were a successful businessman in Iran and got a company going that became successful. As soon as you are making money, you are going to see revolutionary guard send their people saying, we wanna be on your board of directors. We wanna be buying a share into it. Nobody’s been able to have any semblance of economic independence. And meanwhile, the country’s wealth is being robbed and pillaged left and right. The number of economic scandals or financial scandals involving hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars being siphoned out of the treasury has been breaking out the last six years, at least on a regular basis. And again, revolutionary guards and their allies are very much around it. So there’s this economic collapse. Then there is the political collapse. As I mentioned, it started purging even the most loyal members of the political ruling elite. To the point where it is again, just revolutionary guards and their appointed people, such that elections are no longer any semblance of competition. Raisi came to power in an election that didn’t have a single competitor from any faction from within the ruling class. So people boycotted it and really felt like the political structure and the way it had been defined for 44 years as a republic, depending on some kind of voting and legitimizing their power through vote, has collapsed. There is no meaning to politics anymore. And then finally, you have the collapse of the legal system and, uh, what I would call crisis of impunity. The fact that the judiciary, the judges, and the entire system cannot address even the most basic and obvious crimes being committed and no one is ever held accountable.
And that has been glaring. Upward of a thousand people were massacred in a matter of three days when internet was completely shut down. It shook even the most loyal parts of society to the Islamic Republic, who started to ask, who ordered this? Who carried this out? Which branch of security forces were there because they were there to shoot to kill from day one. And yet no one answered that. Why, who and would there be any judicial investigation?
Because so many of the dead were bystanders, peddlers on the street, people who were going home. It just didn’t make sense that so many people die and nobody be held accountable. Two months later, you have a passenger plane over Tehran shot down by the revolutionary guard’s missiles. Again, over 150 Iranians die on that. And the questions arise. Who ordered it? Why should a civilian plane over our own air space and who is gonna be accountable? Will there be a court or a hearing or any kind of investigation? Again, nothing. And then between then and now you have political prisoners die in prison. You have horrible policies such as banning Covid vaccines from entering the country.
Or just look at Mahsa’s own case. Why couldn’t they say, okay, we’re gonna identify the agents who put her on that van and we’re gonna find out exactly what happened and maybe hold someone accountable. Nothing. They produced the 200 page, they’ve been circulating in the UN and domestically in the country where they claim she had brain tumor, she had preexisting conditions, she died of natural death. Her family denying all of that. No independent medical expert been given access to her records or how she died. So it is that crisis of impunity and really the shamelessness of the judicial system, showing that it has no respect for even the semblance of justice that we call it the collapse of the legal system.
So it is all these factors that have brought the population to this point.
Jay Ruderman: I saw an article, this morning in, in, uh, CNN, where the United Nations is saying that as many as 14,000 people have been arrested in Iran over the last six weeks. Do you think that number is correct and what is going to happen to 14,000 people that have been arrested?
Hadi Ghaemi: It’s absolutely correct and it is an under count because there are both when it comes to the number of dead, injured and detained. First of all, there is no independent observers, journalists, or organizations in the country being able to follow up, and that’s why these are the minimum numbers.
I know of dozens of people who have been killed. I’ve talked to their families who’ve been told that they better keep quiet or they themselves or their other children will be in danger. Therefore, they are forcing medical professionals to put, uh, fake and false information for the cause of death on their death certificates and forcing, uh, the families to go out and say, yeah, my child died in a car accident or had a, a natural death. So the dead numbers, which now we know for sure is a minimum of 300, could be much higher. And they wanna make an example of them. For the others, they already have announced, uh, over a thousand indictments for a mass trial to take place only in Tehran alone, where they’re charging people with very awkward and ambiguous charges like enmity against God or waging war against the state, which all could carry death sentences with it. Uh, they’re gonna try to intimidate the rest of the population through this show trials and potentially large executions.
Jay Ruderman: Obviously we’re living in a, in a geopolitical time where Iran is aligned with Russia and China. What does the West do if all of a sudden there are mass executions in, in Iran?
Hadi Ghaemi: Well already some form of international consensus is starting to take shape led by Western countries to isolate Iran and make it clear that its international standing and legitimacy as a member of international community is melting down rapidly. Just yesterday we had an informal session of the Security Council in New York, and it was very impactful. The moral support itself is hugely important. Eventually no government can survive as a private state if it’s killing its own people and the international community in large numbers rejects it. That’s the time when the regime will collapse.
Jay Ruderman: But what is your opinion because there are immense human rights violations that have been going on in Iran for many, many years, but the United States at the same time was pursuing a nuclear, uh, agreement with Iran. So does it seem like, in some ways, the United States was rewarding the regime in Iran and ignoring the human rights violations.
Hadi Ghaemi: It was a mistake that the last six weeks have exposed, and they’re doing relatively good job in reversing it. Just the fact that the US and its negotiators are very loudly and clearly saying that return to JCPOA is on hold and is not a priority, that is a proper policy. Pressure on human rights really should have started in 2000 when, you know, I started this work. Both Europe and US made a lot of mistakes.
What you hear from experts and politicians or foreign policy professionals in power and out of power is that, look, nuclear issue is a security issue. It’s a hard issue. It has to be prominent. Human rights is a soft issue. It’s a moral issue. And you know, we cannot make it, uh, the most important aspect of our policy, And that was really a mistake, and so that we’re facing a revolutionary Iran. If since 2000 there had been a serious focus on human rights, maybe we could have changed the country gradually by the will of the people without having to resort to a revolution.
Jay Ruderman: The members of the security forces, the police, the Army are also Iranians. they’re shooting and fighting against their fellow citizens. Do you see a point where the security forces will say, I’m not doing this, I’m not shooting, you know, against my own citizens.
Hadi Ghaemi: I think it’s coming. That’s very much what happened in 1978, ‘79, when the Army who was brought down to put down street protests precisely started behaving like that and people started fleeing military bases. They just defected. They went back home. This time it’s a little different because the people who were in the army back then, they were many of them regular citizens who were serving their military service. So they still had very strong ties to their homes and families.
Here you do have that, but also since 2009, the regime has been grooming and collecting the most thuggish criminal elements that every society has. They’ve been organizing them and actually letting them carry out their criminal enterprises in parallel to being part-time members of security forces. So we know a lot of these people leading the shooting and beatings in, in Iran, actually have regular jobs or businesses that’s supported by or through money they got from the state to run those enterprises. So they have economic interests. The people leading the beating and killing are, uh, what we call plain clothes agents and militias, the Basij militias, who very much are tied to the bigger security organizations and have economic interests.
I think the moment they will pull back is when we are gonna see gatherings of hundreds of thousands or more in large cities. Uh, they need to feel overwhelmed simply by the numbers. Right now, they’re overwhelmed by the number of small protests scattered all over Tehran. Let’s say they cannot be in 20, 30 neighborhoods at once.
Jay Ruderman: We see videos of women taking off the hijab, cutting their hair, burning the hijab. You know, at, at great personal risk. What do you make of that, of these, very individualistic, forms of protest?
Hadi Ghaemi: Well, again, I see it having two messages. One is that I have nothing to lose anymore. If every woman feels like they could be the next Mahsa. The person doesn’t have to feel like they will be killed to have no future. Women in Iran already suffer from such a huge discrimination in the workplace, in courthouses, in every public and private place, they’re subjugated to the rule of the state so that they never get to fulfill their individual potential. And the hijab has become a symbol of that repression. The women who are doing that are mostly 15 to 25. They’ve seen their mothers and grandmothers and aunts, and older sisters, who have suffered and never able been able to fulfill their individual potential. And now they’re saying, I’ll put my life on the line because this is about the future. It’s about having a vision for a better future without this restriction and this kind of theocracy. So, uh, in a way, they are heroes and heroines of our time that are willing to sacrifice their individual lives so that other people can fulfill their individual potentials in a better Iran.
Clip of Iranian Woman Protester: We want them to go. That’s what we want.
Jay Ruderman: I’m wondering, do you have any desire to go back to Iran someday yourself?
Hadi Ghaemi: It’s not just my hope. There are more than 5 million Iranians in the diaspora who just wanna be able to go back home and forth freely between their adopted countries and their home country.
And let me just say, I do not see it as a depressive situation. Actually, this is the most hopeful I’ve seen Iranians inside the country to be, ironically. They were extremely depressed up to this August when things look like completely, they had no initiative and no proactive direction of how they can impact their future as much as they’re getting killed, imprisoned, and violently, um, confronted.
They are hopeful. They think they have taken matters to their own hands, and although the cost will be heavy, again the future will be brighter than anything it could have been before these events.
Jay Ruderman: Well, Hadi, thank you for your activism, for your deep knowledge of, of what’s going on in, in Iran and it was a pleasure having you as my guest today and all about change.
Hadi Ghaemi: Thank you, Jay. Thank you for having me. It was really nice talking to you.
Clip of the song “Baraye” plays in the background.
Jay Outro: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Mijon Zulu, and Rachel Donner.
As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. In the meantime, you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our new website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com
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I’m going to leave you with Baraye – a song by Iranian musicianShervin Hajipour, who strung together tweets by protestors to create this incredibly moving song that has become the anthem of the Hijab protests and is now nominated for a grammy in the newly introduced category of best song for social change. I’m Jay Ruderman and I’ll catch you next time on “All About Change”.
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