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Iran Copes With Protests Amid Reports Of A Brutal Crackdown


This program does not forget Americans held in Iran. In September, we called a New Jersey woman named Hua Qu. She'd just had a phone call from her husband, Xiyue Wang, who was inside an Iranian prison.


HUA QU: And he told me that there is a courtyard that he - they can spend an hour to have some natural light there, I mean, under the high walls. And in distance, he can see the national flag of Iran. It's all bare and empty. It's just people walk in that small space, round and round.

INSKEEP: Her husband, the man who was hopelessly circling the courtyard, is the American who was freed by Iran last weekend. He'd spent three years in prison on murky charges of aiding a foreign power. After being traded for an Iranian prisoner, Xiyue Wang climbed onto a plane for a flight to Europe, and there he met a U.S. diplomat, Brian Hook, who is the State Department's point person on Iran and who is here to talk over the U.S. confrontation with Iran.

Mr. Hook, welcome to the program.

BRIAN HOOK: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I have to say congratulations to you. Where did you meet Xiyue Wang exactly, and what shape was he in?

HOOK: I met him in Zurich in the context of the prisoner exchange. And so I had brought over on my plane the Iranian. And then we were - the Swiss, who've been great partners, were able to effect the exchange. And then...

INSKEEP: Oh, they are the U.S. intermediaries with Iran.

HOOK: Yeah. We don't have diplomatic ties with the regime, and it's been that way for 40 years now, and so the Swiss are known as our protecting power. And the Swiss ambassador to Iran had been seeing Xiyue Wang on a regular basis. And so over the last few weeks, I'd been working with him to negotiate the deal that would then bring back Xiyue Wang.

INSKEEP: And you meet him face to face, and he'd been in prison for three years. What shape was he in?

HOOK: He was - it was a very emotional and powerful moment. He'd been in two Iranian prisons for over three years in a windowless cell. And it was - he was just so excited and so grateful and very proud to be an American. He's a very brave and amazing man, and I'm pleased to report that he is now reunited with his wife and son.

INSKEEP: They flew over in the last 24 hours or so and met with him...

HOOK: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...In Germany, where he is now - a U.S. military base. Is he in good health?

HOOK: Yes, Ramstein Air Force Base (ph) in Germany. After we met with Wang in Zurich, which is where the exchange occurred in an airport hangar at the airport, we then boarded our plane and then flew up to Ramstein in Germany. And he's receiving excellent medical care there. And then we were able to get a visa for his wife and son to come to Germany, and they're reunited.

INSKEEP: OK. You spent a number of hours with him. Did he just seem to be together and in good shape?

HOOK: Yeah, he is in excellent condition. And he's tough. I really admire his bravery. So we had dinner that night for about three hours and talked about the entire ordeal. He's been working steadily on his doctoral dissertation. He's a Princeton graduate student, and so he kept up with his studies. He learned a couple of new languages. He is very disciplined.

INSKEEP: Well, you got time in prison. So why not?

HOOK: (Laughter) Yeah, he's now fluent in Farsi and French.

INSKEEP: Amazing. I do have to ask, though - Iran's foreign minister, after this exchange, has said in public, quote, "Iran is fully ready for comprehensive prisoner exchange" - because there are more Americans. There are Iranians in American prisons. Can you trade more prisoners without encouraging Iran to just take more prisoners?

HOOK: It's a great question. I think this exchange proves that we can make a deal together. And the talks went smoothly, and so did the logistics. So we hope that this represents a first step for talks between the U.S. and Iran that will secure the release of all the Americans who are still detained in Iran. They're all innocent, and they all should be released immediately. This - the Iranian regime has been condemned repeatedly by the U.N. Human Rights Council for detaining people like Xiyue Wang. So we're hopeful. And we're going to...

INSKEEP: But can you get people out of the U.S. justice system to give to Iran to trade? Is that the right way to do this?

HOOK: We think - what we've been able to do in this case is we were able to bring home an American with no money, no sanctions relief and no change in policy. I am going to ask for a consular dialogue with the Iranians so that we can get the remaining Americans out. It's a question for the Iranians, really, but we are ready to get going. And we're hopeful.

INSKEEP: If you can find things to give them that seem fair, you will do that. I want to ask about the continuing protests in Iran. They've been deadly, but we should note that lots of governments face protests. So in an interview that aired on this program yesterday, we asked Robert O'Brien, President Trump's national security adviser, what exactly these protests mean. Let's listen.


INSKEEP: Is this an inconvenience or something that could seriously threaten their stability?

ROBERT O'BRIEN: Look. It's hard to know because, you know, for - one of the things they did was they shut down the Internet so that word of the protests could not get out - word of their killings of their own citizens couldn't get out. So it's hard to follow. I mean, I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. If you would have asked me two weeks before the wall came down, I wouldn't have told you that the Berlin Wall was going to come down in two weeks. So you just never know with these things.

INSKEEP: Brian Hook, is there really a chance of a Berlin Wall moment here?

HOOK: It's very hard to predict how these things go, but there are a couple of things we do know. This is the deadliest political crisis in the history of the Islamic Republic. And what we've seen is that the regime keeps losing constituencies in its revolutionary base. First it was the students, and then you had the middle class and the merchants. And now you're seeing the working class and even many of the clergy. In these protests, there were nine seminaries that were burned. This is the core of the regime's support. And so at this point, the regime is maintaining its grip on power by brute force. We expect that they're going to have to increase more - gas prices and keep rationing things. And so the people are very unhappy.

INSKEEP: And it was a gas price increase that seems to have triggered this. Now, you said in a press conference last week there were about 1,000 dead in Iran. Some people were surprised. Human rights organizations have had lower, different numbers. Can you name your source for the thousand?

HOOK: We have a number of sources. There's public reports, eyewitness accounts. We opened a tip line for people to send information with photos, videos and also just messages. We received 38,000 of these.

INSKEEP: And you described a video, actually - an excruciating video of Revolutionary Guard soldiers surrounding people and shooting them with machine guns. Are you able to release that video?

HOOK: I have seen some of those videos that have been publicly available. We have other videos, but this was in the town of Mahshahr. And in that massacre alone, there could have been over - we think there were over 100 people who were killed. That exceeds the total number of people killed in the 2009 Green Revolution that the regime violently suppressed. This is the worst crisis they've faced.

INSKEEP: Will you release this video?

HOOK: I will make the request to see if we can.

INSKEEP: Is it a U.S. government product, then, rather than something that just came over the transom - through that tip line?

HOOK: It did come through our tip line, but there were many videos that we saw from that.

INSKEEP: OK. Brian Hook, thanks very much. Really appreciate your time.

HOOK: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad you could come in again this morning. Brian Hook is the United States special representative for Iran.