US leaders praise bravery of Iranian women in protests

President Joe Biden says response to death of Mahsa Amini has left him stunned

US President Joe Biden praised the bravery of Iranian women protesters during a speech in Irvine, California, on October 14. EPA
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President Joe Biden and other top US leaders have hailed the bravery of Iranian women in protests that have continued for weeks, despite a violent crackdown by authorities.

Young women and girls have been at the forefront of nationwide demonstrations against Iran’s clerical leadership over the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian 22-year-old who died in police custody on September 16.

She had been arrested by morality police for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly under Iran’s strict dress code for women.

“The Iranian government is so oppressive, you can’t have anything but an enormous amount of respect for those people marching in the streets,” Mr Biden told reporters while travelling on Saturday.

“I have to admit, I was surprised — not by the response; I was surprised by the courage of people and women taking the street — taking off their headscarf. I mean, it’s really been amazing,” he added.

The protests have continued despite violence from security forces that has claimed at least 200 lives, according to rights groups, and internet blockages imposed by the authorities to prevent people from mobilising.

Mr Biden, whose administration has sanctioned Iranian officials involved in the crackdown and internet restrictions, along with the morality police, called on Iran to “end the violence against its own citizens”.

“We stand with the citizens and brave women of Iran,” he said on Friday at the start of a speech in Irvine, California, on cutting healthcare costs.

Mr Biden said he was “stunned” by the response in Iran to Amini’s death.

“It’s awakened something that I don’t think will be quieted in a long, long time,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also hailed women leading the protests as they met activists originally from Iran.

Ms Harris, who met the Iranian-born actress Nazanin Boniadi, expressed “support for the brave women and girls leading peaceful protests in Iran to secure equal rights and basic human dignity” and “emphasised how the courage of these women protesters has inspired her as it has inspired the world”, the vice president’s office said.

Mr Blinken earlier led a round-table to listen to overseas Iranians, including Boniadi, the writer Roya Hakakian and gender equality activist Sherry Hakimi.

“After Mahsa Amini's death and the spontaneous demonstration of outrage that this has produced, I think we are seeing something that is quite remarkable throughout the country, led primarily by women and young people,” Mr Blinken said at the meeting.

He was joined by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has championed women's rights, and Rob Malley, the US special envoy for Iran who has led months of talks in a bid to restore a 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Iranian civil society activists in the Thomas Jefferson Room at the State Department in Washington on October 14, 2022. AFP

Hakakian said the group urged Mr Biden's administration to halt the talks, which could lead to an easing of sanctions on Iran if it returns to compliance with restrictions on its nuclear programme.

“Our suggestion unanimously was to stop the nuclear talks until the violence stops. And I think everybody heard us loud and clear,” she told National Public Radio after the meeting.

White House spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday that while the United States still backed the nuclear deal, it was unlikely that it would be revived “anytime in the near future”.

Mr Blinken said he anticipated that his meeting with the activists would trigger further accusations from Iran’s leaders that the US was instigating the protests.

“If that's the case, if they genuinely believe that, they fundamentally — fundamentally — do not understand their own people,” he said.

The continuing unrest is one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its founding after the 1979 revolution.

In a warning to demonstrators, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday said that no one should dare think they can uproot the Islamic Republic.

Mr Khamenei compared the republic to an unshakeable tree. “That seedling is a mighty tree now and no one should dare think they can uproot it,” he said on state TV.

Despite warnings and restricted internet access, activists issued an online appeal for a huge protest turnout on Saturday under the catchcry “The beginning of the end!”

They called on people to gather at spots where the security forces were not present and to chant “Death to the dictator”.

“We have to be present in the squares, because the best VPN these days is the street,” they said, referring to virtual private networks used to skirt internet restrictions.

In response, one of Iran's main revolutionary bodies, the Islamic Development Coordination Council, called on people to join a counterdemonstration after evening prayers on Saturday to “express their revolutionary anger against sedition and rioters”.

Updated: October 16, 2022, 12:37 PM