What's Behind The Deadly Protests Across Iran?

Originally published on January 1, 2018 8:35 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's ask what's behind the deadly protests across Iran. Initially, President Hassan Rouhani seemed to be the target of the demonstrations. But then some protesters aimed even higher. They chanted death to the dictator, a reference to the ayatollah who holds supreme power in the country. We've call in longtime visitor to Iran who's watching the protests, Robin Wright of The New Yorker. Good morning.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Good morning. Happy New Year.

CHANG: Happy New Year to you, too. What are you hearing from your friends in Iran right now?

WRIGHT: Well, there are a lot of things happening that play out in a lot of different levels. This is different from the 2009 Green Movement when you saw a public uprising in challenging the election results. That, at the time, had a leadership. That was political. This at the moment began over economic issues. You have almost 30 percent unemployment among the young. And some of the staples have gone up as much as 40 percent in recent weeks. And so there was a spontaneous protest that began in a very conservative center of Iran, in Mashhad - Iran's holiest city. And it spread very quickly. And it's clear that this economic issue resonates.

Now, it has taken on a political component, challenging not only the government of President Rouhani but also the broader religious system, which is headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader.

CHANG: And who is the one - of those two individuals - who are these protests ultimately aimed at? - both or is there one in particular?

WRIGHT: I think it looks at both. But there have been some striking calls challenging and calling the supreme leader a dictator. These are some of the chants that took place in 2009 as well. But it's clear that there's a kind of discontent that is sweeping Iran over broad issues. But it doesn't look like it has the kind of leadership it did in 2009 when you had defeated presidential candidates who spearheaded and endorsed and publicly got out and rallied protesters. This time, you don't see that kind of leadership emerge. And it's unclear how this is happening from town to town except through social media.

CHANG: Do you see these protests as posing a real risk to the regime ultimately?

WRIGHT: Well, certainly, it does. And the fact that you have large numbers and the fact security forces have been called out to try to put them down - it's very interesting that President Rouhani in comments to the nation yesterday talked about diligent intimacy of protests and recognition of the problems. But he also said that violence would not be tolerated. And that's where the dividing line is. If these protests become more violent then you're likely to see a real clash between Iran and its own people.

CHANG: All right. That's Robin Wright. She's a journalist and a fellow at the Wilson Center. And she joined us by Skype. Thank you very much, Robin.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.