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Protests In Iran Are About More Than A Spike In Gas Prices, Expert Says


What really happened during protests in Iran? We do know that people marched in the streets in recent days after gas prices increased. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the United States spoke directly to the protesters.


MIKE POMPEO: The United States hears you. We support you. And we will continue to stand with you in your struggle for a brighter future for your people and for your great nation.

INSKEEP: But it's tricky to say what the protesters were struggling for and how they were crushed because the Iranian government cut the Internet for days. To pull together the story of how the protests unfolded, we reached out to Assal Rad.

ASSAL RAD: As an Iranian American, I have family and friends, extensive networks that live in Iran.

INSKEEP: She is also a researcher for the National Iranian American Council in the United States and relied on videos that have emerged as the Internet came back on. She draws a picture of an Iran devastated by U.S. economic sanctions, putting people in a situation where the gas price hike by the government was a step too much for many.

RAD: Not only does it have a consequence when they're filling up their tank, but just like anywhere else, when the price of energy is going up, you assume the price of everything, all these other services, are going to also increase. So for instance, taxi drivers are one of the first people who were very angry by the increase and part of the people who would be protesting because it would directly impact them. But this will sort of trickle into other areas of the economy and daily life. So you see sporadic protests start. And I think once the government reacted, you know - which they did immediately. They sort of immediately met protesters with force. The shutting down of the Internet - when I've spoken to people, what they've said is within hours, the Internet was basically shut down. So I think then from there, you get these larger reactions again, which is why I said the gas prices are really just a spark. There's clearly a lot more layers to what's going on there.

INSKEEP: What did these protests look like?

RAD: Well, the first videos that we saw showed sort of marches - right? - what looked like a typical protest scene. What started to come in were videos that showed sort of these scenes of sporadic violence.


RAD: As the protests moved forward and as they were met with really brutal force from the authorities, they turned into what looked more like a war scene. You know, it didn't look like people who were marching in the streets it looked like people who were fighting with, like, police forces, almost, like, people who were wearing riot gear fighting back. You know, there were images of people throwing stones. There were images of buildings on fire. It really evolved from something that looked like protests and marches into a much more combative type of scene.

INSKEEP: So there were these videos that came out in the opening hours. Then the Internet went away for a period of time. Now it's coming back, and we're learning a little bit more. How have you gone about trying to find out what's going on in the country?

RAD: So my first concern was really just making sure my loved ones were OK and getting a sense of what was going on there. What I was able to do was establish a connection by calling them. So while the Internet wasn't working, their phones were. If you could call a landline or a cellphone directly where they didn't need Internet access, then you could actually communicate with them. We don't have a full picture because Iranian authorities weren't allowing press to really cover what was going on, even press within Iran. So even being on the ground there, if you weren't inside of the protests, it was very difficult to tell what was going on because you, too, were cut off from information. And really, the information was being carried by word of mouth.

INSKEEP: But you are calling people that you know. They know other people inside Iran. What questions as an analyst were you posing to them, and what kinds of answers did you hear?

RAD: Really, I was just trying to get at, what is the goal of these protests? You know, what do you think will come of these protests. It devolved into something where they started calling on the government and sort of demanding that the government take action but also just airing grievances. One of my friends described it to me - they're like, it's almost like they're crying in pain. They're hurting in their ability to subside in this economy. And they're asking their government to be held accountable because while they understand that sanctions play a role in their economic plight, there's also leveling concerns at a government that they see as corrupt and a government that they see mismanaging the wealth that they do have.

INSKEEP: Well, if you are the United States or the Trump administration, you would like the Iranian government to feel a lot of pressure and maybe even being on the way to falling - being overthrown. Do you see any evidence in these protests of a desire for people to overthrow their government?

RAD: So it's more complex than simply saying they want to overthrow their government. You know, they want the things that basically everybody wants. They want to live in a peaceful environment. They want to have access to the international economy because they are aware of the fact that the isolationism of their economy is part of, you know, the sanctions. All of those things contribute to why they struggle so much economically. They simply want this openness and ability to live in the same way that everybody else tries to live everywhere else in the world.

INSKEEP: The Iranian security forces seem to have cracked down rather hard on these protests. And, of course, Iran's supreme leader made a statement that the protesters or their leaders were, quote, "villains" and that they should be crushed. Did Iran's supreme leader discredit himself in any way, given that there seems to be a lot of genuine pain on the streets?

RAD: Yes, I do think he discredited himself. And I think this is not the first time he's done so. When Iranians rightfully protest, when they rightfully assemble, when they air their very justified grievances. They are met with force, and they're met with this sort of condescension from the supreme leadership. To say that some of the protesters engaged in burning buildings - then that's a form of vandalism. But to dismiss this larger grievance as simply the doings of thugs or villains is incredibly unfair to the people who are protesting and are rightfully protesting.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you don't think that the way the Iranian government responded to the protest was politically that smart. But are they technically smart, meaning, do they have the power on the streets and the power in the Internet to continue to control the population?

RAD: If you just look at it as their ability to survive, then yes, I mean, that's what they're trying to do. I mean, that's - the ultimate goal is, you know, if we can suppress these protests, if we can limit access to the Internet, if we can basically limit access to information, then we can survive. And that seems to be the main goal of the government currently. As they become more authoritarian, that is where you see more people going against them. And I actually had another person that I spoke with who has regularly participated in elections in Iran who said, after this, I don't think I'm going to vote again.

INSKEEP: Assal Rad of the National Iranian American Council, thank you so much.

RAD: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.