Iranians take to the streets to protest government after it admits downing plane

JUDY WOODRUFF: The government of Iran is under
intense new pressure tonight after admitting its forces shot down a passenger airliner
last week. Protests rocked the Islamic Republic through
the weekend and again today. We begin with this report from foreign affairs
correspondent Nick Schifrin. NICK SCHIFRIN: The Iranian regime wanted to
unite the country around a general assassinated by the U.S. Instead, regime actions led demonstrators
to united in tearing him down. For three straight days, Iranians in several
cities have protested their government. Cell phone videos from the capital, Tehran, show
demonstrators chanting, “Shame on the Revolutionary Guards.” Many of the protesters are students,
furious that the Revolutionary Guards accidentally shot down a passenger jet last week, killing
176, after denying it for three days. At a weekend vigil for the crash victims,
a sign read, “The government’s lies killed us,” and relatives of those killed blamed
the regime. WOMAN (through translator): We are gathered
here because of some people’s inefficiency, because of some people’s inadequacy. NICK SCHIFRIN: Only seven days ago, hundreds
of thousands of Iranians rallied around the regime and mourned major General Qasem Soleimani,
killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq. But, this weekend, the regime turned their
guns on their own people. These cell phone videos reportedly show a woman reportedly
shot in the leg by police forces and a protester’s blood dripped along a sidewalk. At one point, a huge crowd started running
for their lives. You can hear the tear gas canister fired at protesters by police. NADER HASHEMI, Josef Korbel School of International
Studies, University of Denver: The protests are immediately responding to Iran’s admission
of guilt for shooting down the Ukrainian aircraft. But I think these protests are much bigger,
and much larger, and much more significant than simply that event. NICK SCHIFRIN: Nader Hashemi is a professor
at the University of Denver. He calls these protests a reflection of previous Iranian
demonstrators, including late last year, sparked by increased gas prices, and the 2009 Green
Movement, when protesters called for social freedoms and the reversal of an election considered
rigged. NADER HASHEMI: Over the last several decades,
a new generation of young people have been born and raised in the Islamic Republic that
have a very different vision for the future than their leaders do. These young people
aspire for democracy, to greater freedoms, to human rights. But they’re living in a deeply authoritarian
system that is committed to denying them those aspirations. NICK SCHIFRIN: President Trump encouraged
the protests and warned the regime. On Sunday he tweeted: “To the leaders of Iran:,
do not kill your protesters. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you,
and the world is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching.” The next day, President Trump retweeted an
image that mocked top congressional Democrats as tools for Iran. On FOX News today, Press Secretary Stephanie
Grisham went even further. STEPHANIE GRISHAM, White House Press Secretary:
I think the president is making clear that the Democrats are — have been parroting Iranian
talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists. NICK SCHIFRIN: Senior administration officials
also struggled to synchronize their story for why they targeted Soleimani in the days
after Iranian-backed militias laid siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies. And I think that probably
Baghdad already started. NICK SCHIFRIN: But on CBS’s “Face the Nation,”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declined to repeat that. MARK ESPER, U.S. Defense Secretary: Well,
the president didn’t say there was a tangible — he didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said is he probably — he believed,
could have been… MARGARET BRENNAN, Host, “Face the Nation”:
Are you saying there wasn’t one? MARK ESPER: I didn’t see one with regard to
four embassies. What I’m saying is, I share the president’s
view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. NICK SCHIFRIN: Trump administration officials
tell “PBS NewsHour” they believe their maximum pressure campaign is working. But critics
warned the policies are strengthening Iran’s hard-liners, and the cycle of confrontation
continues. NADER HASHEMI: The Trump administration is
feeling emboldened by these protests. And the Iranian government is in no mood for negotiation
after the assassination of Soleimani. JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and Nick Schifrin joins
me now. So, Nick, we were just hearing this expert
say confrontation between the U.S. and Iran likely to continue. So, is the United States
interested in negotiating or not? NICK SCHIFRIN: That is the stated goal of
what the U.S. has been doing in the past, but we see a subtle shift away from emphasis
on negotiations. And this happened especially in a presidential
tweet this weekend. Judy, we saw the president responding to a statement by the national
security adviser, suggesting that the maximum pressure campaign would force Iran to negotiate.
You see that in the middle right there. The president responded: “I couldn’t care
less if they negotiate.” And, by the way, he later retweeted that message
in Farsi. I asked a senior State Department official
about that. And the official said that our priority is getting Iran to change its behavior,
stop supporting terrorism, give up ballistic missiles, end its nuclear program. And there
are multiple ways for us to get Iran to do that. So the message from the president and this
official is that we do want behavior changed, but we’re not necessarily going to emphasize
negotiations. And that does the mean the tension will increase.
The U.S. believes the strategies are working. And Iran doesn’t want to negotiate under the
current circumstances, and under this current very serious threat in Iran that we’re talking
about here. We not only saw the students protesting. We
saw the accidental arrest of a British ambassador. We saw high-profile defections. And we even
saw criticism from hard-line newspapers demanding resignations. So Iran does have a very serious
problem with these protests. JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meantime, Nick, you had
a continuing discussion over the weekend about just how imminent the threat was before General
Soleimani was killed. Where does that all stand? NICK SCHIFRIN: So, a U.S. official — U.S.
official tells me that President Trump did authorize the strike on Soleimani months ago. That means that that was regardless of the
current threats. But, at the same time, senior administration officials tell me that he reauthorized
the strike on Soleimani in the days before the strike, and so that means there are these
dual instincts from the administration that reflect these kind of dual talking points. You have the Pentagon, State Department, CIA
pushing for a large response against Iran in general, and then those same people, seeing
the same in Baghdad, seeing this U.S. official die from an Iranian-backed militia, and wanting
to, as they put it, reestablish deterrence, really send Iran a strong message, and hence
Soleimani was killed. JUDY WOODRUFF: The story doesn’t go away. Nick Schifrin, thank you. NICK SCHIFRIN: Thank you.

Stephen Childs

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