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Foreign minister says Iranians can freely voice ideas despite thousands detained

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When I sat down this week with the foreign minister of Iran, he made the following remarkable observation - that people here in Iran can, quote, "freely voice their ideas." That would come as news to the thousands of people who have been detained these last few months in antigovernment protests. We aired that statement yesterday in the first part of my conversation with Iran's top diplomat, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Today, part two, where we pushed him on it.

We have been talking to people in many parts of Tehran, many lines of work. Young, old, almost all of them were frightened to speak. They were frightened to speak to a journalist. They're frightened to criticize the government. They're frightened to speak out. Moving on from that, let me ask about the internet here. Why is the internet restricted in Iran?

HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) First of all, I don't think that anyone is really frightened to interview with you. I guess that's the wrong impression of you. The very presence of yourself here in Iran interviewing people freely is a testament to freedom here.

KELLY: People told us this repeatedly, and when we asked to interview them, they pointed up and pointed at cameras. They're watching. They're watching.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Then you could interview them on a blind spot. But let's move on to the internet. You see; when the situation gets critical, when there are security concerns, when there are threats of terrorist acts and when people have been targeted, it is only too natural for us to do everything that we can, the police and the security organizations. You see; during the raid to the U.S. Congress, even the former U.S. president was banned from Twitter. What proportion really is there when we are talking about freedom and banning the first person in command in the U.S. from the internet?

KELLY: President - if I may, President Trump was banned from Twitter by Twitter, not by the U.S. government. Are you acknowledging that your government is restricting and slowing down the internet here?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Twitter is controlled by the government, and in fact, banning...

KELLY: No.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) ...President Trump...

KELLY: It's a private company.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) ...Was an order of the government.

KELLY: It's a private company. It's not controlled by the U.S. government.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Of course, we're no friend to Trump.

KELLY: We interviewed one young woman last night. She tried to show me her Instagram feed on her phone. It doesn't load. She tries. She tries. Just - she believes - she told us she believes this is to prevent her and others from telling the world what is happening here. Is that true?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Instagram is restricted in Iran. True. This is so because during the riots, Instagram promoted and, in fact, trained people how to make Molotov cocktails and other instruments of terror. And therefore, we trampled the very policies it set for itself. Should Instagram agree with our terms in Iran, if they establish an office here and succumb to our rules and regulations, they can operate freely.

KELLY: Recent events here are shaping how the rest of the world views Iran, which is why I put questions about them to Amir-Abdollahian. But after more than 25 minutes of back-and-forth as he spoke through his interpreter, he pointed out that he is the foreign minister, and why weren't we asking him questions about foreign policy? So we did.

The nuclear deal, the JCPOA - is it dead?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Americans keep sending us messages. But in fact, they have adopted some sort of a hypocritical behavior. On the one hand, we keep receiving messages from Rob Malley and Blinken. We receive foreign ministers, and they in fact give us and forward us the messages from Americans. From the messages we receive, I can say that the Americans insist that we push forward until we can finalize a deal. Concurrently, however, they say different things when they appear in media. In fact, I sent a message to be forwarded to the American authorities asking, why have you adopted a hypocritical behavior?

KELLY: Who did you send the message to? How do you communicate?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) To Mr. Blinken, of course, through one of the foreign ministers.

KELLY: Our secretary of state.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Ask the question, why hypocrisy? If you want to return to the deal, why do you say one thing to the media and the other through our diplomatic exchanges?

KELLY: So you would like a more consistent message, and you believe you're not getting it from the United States. The head of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that Iran has now amassed enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons - his words. Will Iran build nuclear weapons?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) We have high capabilities when it comes to peaceful nuclear energy. In order to respond to wrong American behavior and within the framework of reciprocity, we leveled up our nuclear activities. However, when it comes to our beliefs and values, we do not pursue the making of a nuclear bomb.

KELLY: By now, we had already spoken for longer than our agreed time with the foreign minister, but I also wanted to ask about the status of Americans here.

Iran has released Baquer Namazi, an American citizen who was imprisoned here in Iran. His son Siamak is still being held here. Is there hope for his release and the other American citizens detained here?

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Yes. In fact, we agreed with the Americans on this. The agreement has been in place ever since March. The exchange of prisoners is a humanitarian thing, after all. Back in March, Americans even dispatched the representative, who was a U.K. national, to Iran. Less than two months ago, the representative was in Iran again. The agreement is on the table. There are technical steps to be taken by the American side. And even there, I see some sort of confusion in America. They put it off for tomorrow, for the next week, but we have every readiness to do that. We are ready to do this within the framework of the minutes of an agreement, which was formed through the participation of a third party. In fact, we agreed with the American side so that the Americans would introduce a representative. They did, and it was a U.K. official. The representative in question was in Iran in the past weeks, and we updated the agreement that we had back in March. We're ready to exchange our prisoners, but there are technical steps that need to be taken by the Americans. We are awaiting the technical steps to be taken.

KELLY: The foreign minister did not elaborate on what the steps are. Here is how our interview ended.

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) I wish you a pleasant stay here in Iran. There are very few cameras on the streets in Iran. I don't know where you have been and where you conducted your interviews with people. People in Iran are free, and they express themselves quite freely.

KELLY: I am glad to be in Iran. I appreciate you taking our questions. And I did see many cameras, but the broader point is that we are glad to be here speaking with Iranians and hearing what is on people's minds.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, foreign minister of Iran. You'll find both parts of our conversation at npr.org. Our reporting here in Iran, speaking with both officials and regular people, continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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