‘The interview never happened’: Why CNN journalist cancelled a discussion with Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, 64, cancelled the interview with the Iranian president after he asked her to wear a headscarf amidst the civil unrest in Tehran. Image Courtesy: @camanpour/Instagram

This image taken will perhaps become one of the most unforgettable moments of the year 2022.

The image shows CNN anchor and well-renowned journalist Christiane Amanpour sitting in front of an empty chair, meant for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who never showed up for what was supposed to be his first ever interview on American soil, during his visit to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

What went down? Why did Iran’s Raisi not show up for an interview that was planned and scheduled weeks ahead? We find out what happened and how people reacted to the incident.

The interview that never happened

On Wednesday, 64-year-old CNN‘s chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour was set to interview Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, 61, at the United Nations in New York on the sideline of UNGA.

According to the CNN journalist — who grew up in the Iranian capital Tehran and is a fluent Farsi speaker — the interview was going to be President Raisi’s first ever interview on US soil.

In a series of tweets, she wrote that she had planned to ask him about various topics, including the outbreak of protests in Iran following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested and beaten by “morality police” for violating headscarf laws.

“After weeks of planning and eight hours of setting up translation equipment, lights and cameras, we were ready. But no sign of President Raisi,” Amanpour tweeted on Thursday.

According to Amanpour, some 40 minutes after the interview was scheduled to start and with Raisi running late, an aide from the Iran president’s office suggested that she wear a headscarf.

The aide’s reasoning to the headscarf was that it was the holy months of Muharram and Safar. Amanpour said that she “politely declined” the request. “We are in New York, where there is no law or tradition regarding headscarves. I pointed out that no previous Iranian president has required this when I have interviewed them outside Iran,” she said when the aide asked her to cover her head.

The aide then told Amanpour that the interview would not happen if she did not wear a headscarf. He said it was “a matter of respect,” and referred to “the situation in Iran”.

Amanpour said she couldn’t agree to this “unprecedented and unexpected condition” and “so we walked away.”

Her refusal to wear the headscarf and forego the interview was met with praise online.

NPR radio host Esther Ciammachilli retweeted Amanpour’s photo, writing, “What they mean when they say, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ Christiane Amanpour’s integrity is fully intact.”

Iran’s burning

The incident happened at a time when Iran is seeing violent and angry protests with women publicly burning their hijabs and cutting their hair off after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Amini was arrested last week by Islamic Republic’s morality police for wearing “unsuitable attire”. According to officials, she died of a heart attack and did not suffer any mistreatment, despite experts’ claims she was severely beaten.

Iranian law requires all women to wear a head covering and loose-fitting clothing in public. The rule has been enforced in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and it is obligatory for every woman in the country – including tourists, visiting political figures and journalists.

In fact, Amanpour told CNN that she wears a headscarf while reporting in Iran to comply with the local laws and customs, “otherwise you couldn’t operate as a journalist.”

Following the tragic death, thousands of people have taken to streets, with some women cutting their hair and burning their hijabs in protest against the law. An Oslo-based NGO has reported that at least 31 civilians have been killed as Iranian security forces crackdown on the protests.

“The people of Iran have come to the streets to achieve their fundamental rights and human dignity… and the government is responding to their peaceful protest with bullets,” Iran Human Rights (IHR) director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said in a statement, publishing a toll after six days of protests.

On Thursday, Iran government officials shut off the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, in an attempt to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document dissent.

Women have been posting images and videos of themselves cutting their hair or burning their hijab under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.

The protests have captured the attention of the world, with United States president Joe Biden expressing his support for the “brave women of Iran”. “Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” Biden said while addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, on Tuesday, also said that “Mahsa Amini should be alive today.”

“Mahsa Amini should be alive today. Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest,” Blinken said.

The US has also place Iran’s morality police on its sanctions blacklist on Thursday.

The US Treasury said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death as it announced the sanctions “for abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”.

With inputs from agencies

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