Iran's President Says Protests Are Over, But The Situation Remains Tense
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Iran's president says the protests that have brought the country to a standstill are now over, but things are still tense there. The government is restoring Internet after shutting it down for days, but it's unclear if this is the end of the unrest. Amnesty International says at least 100 people have been killed by security forces. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the developments from Istanbul and joins us now.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.
CHANG: So are these protests indeed over? What can you tell us?
KENYON: Well, it's a bit soon to be saying the protests are definitely and finally over, despite President Hassan Rouhani's claim. Friday prayers are coming tomorrow. That's a popular time - after the prayers, of course - when some protest could happen. So if they are going to be continued, that would be the first opportunity.
But it is definitely quieter today. Officials are saying it's all over. And other than some pro-government demonstrations, the streets are pretty much calm. The question is, will that remain the case?
CHANG: Right. I mean, Iran's a country that has seen large protests over the years. How significant would you say these current protests are?
KENYON: Oh, they're serious - reminiscent, in some respects, of protests in 2017 or even bigger ones in 2009. Now, whether they're sparked by economic issues or political complaints - in this case, it was a 50% rise in the price of fuel, so economic - these protests often have a way of morphing into general expressions of discontent with the government. And this government, led by President Rouhani, a somewhat more pragmatic conservative, not actually a moderate - but he's seen as not delivering on these promises of better economic times that he campaigned on.
CHANG: You mentioned some economic forces at play - the 50% rise in fuel prices. I mean, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. sanctions that followed have not helped. How much is Iran's economy suffering currently, would you say?
KENYON: Well, it's not good. And that is in contrast, as you were alluding to, to just a few years ago. When the nuclear agreement was implemented, things were looking up for President Rouhani. And his main reason for running was to boost the economy, improve the standard of living of the people living there in Iran. Money came pouring in. Talks began on foreign investment. But then after the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed punitive sanctions, the economy started to sink again. Today, Iranians are struggling with high inflation, sagging currency, relative lack of investment.
I spoke with Djavad Salehi-Isfahani. He's an economist at Virginia Tech University who follows Iran quite closely, and he said the return of sanctions and this maximum-pressure campaign from the U.S. has basically left Rouhani without a clear path forward. Here's a bit of what he said.
DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: And since President Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal, that plan has fallen flat, and he's been grasping at straws, trying to reinvent his economic strategy.
KENYON: Now, he turned to Europe for a while, but the European companies proved unable to fulfill the promises that some of their governments had been making rhetorically. Isfahani says, and their economies are just too linked to the American market. They couldn't risk triggering sanctions either, all of which leaves many Iranians facing pretty hard times right now.
Life under sanctions, of course, isn't really a new thing to them. And for the most part, defiance is the default response. There's a notion there that simply surviving this international pressure amounts to a victory, but there's no doubt that sanctions are taking a toll.
CHANG: Now, I know it's really hard to get reliable specifics right now. We're hearing Amnesty International saying the death toll is at least a hundred, at least at the hands of security forces. How accurate are those figures?
KENYON: They are estimates, and it's impossible to get a absolutely firm number right now. Amnesty International said 106 but raised the possibility that it could actually be as high as 200. The government says that's ridiculous, way out of line, much too high, but hasn't presented any firm numbers of its own.
And as to the circumstances of how these people died, Amnesty says despite the block of the Internet, there is evidence that many deaths were the result of excessive force by Iran's security services. In fact, some officials warned that if these protests continued, the response would get even tougher than it has been. Whether that serves to keep things calm in the days ahead is something we'll be watching for.
CHANG: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting in Istanbul.
Thanks so much, Peter.
KENYON: Thank you, Ailsa.
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