KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today is the fifth day of protests in Iran. They started mainly over economic concerns, and they've now turned violent. State media says more than 12 people - protesters and police - have been killed in clashes. And while the demonstrations started far outside the capital city of Tehran, they've spread there too. The New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink joined us by Skype from Tehran, and I asked him to describe what he saw there today.
THOMAS ERDBRINK: There were clearly so many police forces that it was nearly impossible for people to protest, but I did see a group of around 50 people - younger people - wearing face masks against pollution - but also, of course, not to be recognized - who suddenly came out and started shouting slogans like death to the dictator and we are not Gaza or Lebanon; we want to be here for Iran. And they were urging other people to join them. But with so many security forces on the streets, members of the Revolutionary Guard in riot gear wielding batons, not many people dare to do that.
MCEVERS: As we said, you know, these protests are about economic issues. And how bad is the economy in Iran? I mean, what sparked the protests?
ERDBRINK: Well, the economy has been very bad for many years. And there are two main reasons. First, there have been sanctions against this country over its nuclear program, and even though Iran's leaders have made a deal with world powers and the United States, the United States still has unilateral sanctions against Iran that prevent, for instance, financial transactions to and from this country. And you can imagine, if you cannot do financial transactions, it's very hard for businesses to come in and to come and create jobs here. At the same time, Iran's leaders are hard-liners and ideologues, and in their hearts, they really don't want foreign companies to come into this country and create jobs here.
So as a result, a lot of young people have no jobs. Many mistakes have been made and are being made in Iran's economy which cause, for instance, double-digit inflation, the Iranian riyal to slide against the euro and the dollar. And what sparked it most recently is very hard to say, but one thing was very important. Iran's government - the government of Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president - came out with a new budget, and in their budget, a lot of money was being spent on religious institutions, the Revolutionary Guards and paramilitaries. But at the same time, higher taxes were demanded from them, so this has really made people upset.
MCEVERS: Is this the first time we're hearing protesters, you know, singling out religious leaders as much as the - as it sounds like they are in these protests?
ERDBRINK: Absolutely. They're absolutely being singled out. There have been a lot of slogans directly aimed at Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is - yeah - used - traditionally viewed as somebody who is so sacred that you were not allowed to criticize him. But these protesters clearly don't care about this. But at the same time, they did the same thing in 2009. When there were these Green Movement protests about the disputed elections, they also directed their criticism at their leaders.
MCEVERS: Quickly - where do you see these protests going?
ERDBRINK: I think these protests right now are all about rage, and there is no clear leadership, and there's no clear agenda. So it is, at this point, kind of hard to see these protests continue for a longer time, but this was surprising for Iran's leadership, and they might be surprised again in the near future.
MCEVERS: New York Times Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink. Thank you so much.
ERDBRINK: Thank you.
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