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Wave Of Unrest Spreads Across Iran


We turn now to the ongoing protests in Iran. State-run media there say 22 people have died in the anti-government demonstrations. They started because of longstanding economic woes in many parts of the country, problems that got worse under Western sanctions on Iran. And while Iran's government admits it should do more to fix the economy, it also blames the U.S. and other countries for fueling the unrest. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following this story from his base in Istanbul. He joins us now. Good morning, Peter.


MARTIN: So nearly two dozen people have been killed in these protests, hundreds arrested. What's the latest that you're hearing?

KENYON: Well, one thing that's new is the return of pro-government demonstrations. We're getting reports today of marchers in a number of places condemning the violence associated with the anti-government protests. Now, the government had tried these pro-government rallies last weekend on Saturday. At that point, they didn't have much effect. Now they're back. We'll see what happens. And, meanwhile, the anti-government protests just keep going in their seventh day in numerous places, also not involving huge numbers of people. Here's a video from last night that will give you a little sense of what's happening, a little different from the usual protest scenes.



UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: Now, it almost sounds like an ordinary traffic sound, but what it is is this person focusing not on the demonstrators - they're in the background - but in the foreground, you see this motorcycle patrol of paramilitary besiege units moving over to confront them. So clearly there's a level of crackdown still going on, not overwhelming yet. And, meanwhile, the government seems to be trying out these pro-government rallies.

MARTIN: Well, that's what I was going to ask. I mean, how's the government's response? You say there are now pro-government protesters on the streets. But is the government changing or evolving its response to these demonstrations?

KENYON: Well, if so, it's pretty slow. It's essentially a dual-track approach. I mean, some officials, especially the president, Hassan Rouhani, are acknowledging the economic problems. He's saying please be patient, please don't be violent. Others more hardline, from the supreme leader on down, are blaming outside agitators including Washington. The Rouhani government is trying to point out, look, the economy is better in broad indicators. But that's not satisfying people at the street level whose wages aren't keeping up with the inflation. They're not seeing the benefits that this 2015 nuclear deal was supposed to achieve with the lifting of sanctions. So that's the problem he's facing right now.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, this is how Rouhani sold this thing, the Iran nuclear deal, to Iranians, that it was going to improve their lives. So is he in a politically difficult spot right now?

KENYON: Yes, he is. And, partly, it's institutional. It's structural. The power is very fragmented in Iran. Everyone supposedly answers and does answer to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at one level, but the elected president, Rouhani, has a very limited reach. I mean, he's not a reformer himself, but he is trying to make life better for ordinary Iranians. But the security, the intelligence, the military and even economic sectors are deeply controlled by hardliners. I mean, the Revolutionary Guard Corps for years has been deeply embedded in the economy. A lot of money goes to them, goes to proxy militias in the area, Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq. There's a war going on in Yemen that Iran's involved in. So Rouhani's ability to change any of that is very limited, and the idea that these street protests are going to do it seems unlikely at the moment.

MARTIN: So how does this end?

KENYON: Well, your guess is as good as mine. We're getting reports today that Rouhani spoke with the Turkish president and said he believes that things will be calming down in a few days. We'll see if that prediction holds. You know, in 2009, the demonstrations were much, much bigger, and the model then was just to crush the dissent with a heavy-handed show of force. This time there's a slightly different nature of the protests, different people out there on the streets. A heavy-handed response now could backfire a little bit, but then that begs the question, what can they do? I mean, real job creation, the kind of things people are asking for, even if they decide to redirect money towards that, that's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take time.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, covering the protests happening in Iran. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.