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Behind the protests and brutal government crackdown in Iran

For two weeks, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in what began as protests denouncing a hike in fuel prices. But the uprising quickly turned political, with demands that top officials step down, and the government blacking out internet in response. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders accuse the U.S. of fomenting the unrest. Special correspondent Reza Sayah joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the past two weeks, Iranians have taken to the streets by thousands in what began as protests denouncing a hike in gasoline prices.

    But the uprising quickly turned political, with demands that top officials step down. The Iranian government responded with a five-day Internet shutdown, so the user-generated video and accounts that raised awareness of past demonstrations were blacked out.

    We still know little about what's happened. Yesterday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the protests were a U.S.-led plot to destroy the country.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (through translator):

    It was a deep, extensive, and very dangerous conspiracy that cost the United States so much money and effort. They wanted to use an opportunity to carry out this move, which was an act of destruction, arson, murder, and vandalism, under the pretext of a gasoline price increase.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Internet has been partially restored.

    And special correspondent Reza Sayah joins us from Tehran, where he's been following the latest on the ground.

    Reza, it's good to see you.

    We know connectivity, being able to get any word out, has been an issue. So, fill us in. What is the latest on the ground?

  • Reza Sayah:

    Amna, giving you an update on the latest here in Iran is still a bit of a challenge, because many Iranians are just now getting back online, just now getting their Internet service back.

    The big news today here in Iran Thursday is that cell phone users are back online, after being offline for the better part of two weeks. And it was a lack of Internet connections for cell phone users that perhaps played the biggest part in this information blackout that we saw last week, an information blackout that made it very difficult, nearly impossible, for many people to conclusively report on the magnitude and the scale and the intensity of the protests.

    That said, indications are that the protests have died down, and when you drive around Tehran today, nowhere near the security presence that we saw last week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reza, let's talk about why these protests are happening now.

    We mentioned that hike in gasoline prices. Do we have any idea why that decision was made in the first place?

  • Reza Sayah:

    It's impossible for us to say why authorities decided that this was the best time to raise gas prices at a time when many working-class Iranians are suffering so much and under so much pressure.

    But we can tell you that many Iranian officials and Iranian analysts have long said that raising gas prices is the right thing to do for Iran's economy.

    Remember, Iran's gas prices have long been heavily subsidized. They're some of the cheapest in the world, running about 50 cents per gallon. And officials here say that has led to high consumption and heavy smuggling, and something had to be done.

    But the fact that they decided to do it now is perhaps an indication of how much the economy is struggling, to a point where authorities had to take a desperate measure, where there was a backlash.

    Then came the Trump administration, who pulled out of the nuclear deal, reimposed new sanctions. There was never any foreign investment that came into Iran. Oil sales went down significantly. There was inflation, a devaluation of currency, unemployment.

    And that, many say, led to the government perhaps making that drastic measure of raising fuel prices. So, again, many people argue that the U.S. sanctions that had a huge role in what happened last week, but, also, many people argue that it's these U.S. sanctions that are hurting average Iranians, and not impacting the government.

    And we can also tell you that, when the protests happened, many groups both inside and outside Iran tried to take over the narrative. The hard-liners here blamed the moderates on the rising fuel prices. The moderates blamed the hard-liners.

    And, in D.C., the Trump administration and the Iran hawks said the protest and the rising fuel prices were evidence that the U.S. sanctions were working. And on the other hand, the moderate observers of Iran said that the protests and the rising gas prices were an indication that the sanctions were only impacting average Iranians, and the fact that the government is still in power was proof that the sanctions were not working.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At one point, it was reported there were protests in more than 100 cities across the country.

    Tell us a little bit about the overall government response. Has the scale of these protests shaken them at all?

  • Reza Sayah:

    All indications are that the government reacted swiftly, they reacted brutally, and they reacted with deadly force, perhaps more deadly force than they have ever used.

    Over the past several days, we have heard a growing number of reports naming individuals who were allegedly killed by security forces during the protests. A lot of names are being posted online, reports that we can't independently confirm.

    We can tell you that Amnesty International made headlines when they put out a report that more than 100 people were killed. This time, of course, they made the seemingly effective move of shutting down Internet and, again, using deadly force very quickly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reza, these are easily among the largest demonstrations against the Islamic Republic since the resolution four decades ago, not as large as the Green Revolution in 2009, though.

    But tell us, what happens now?

  • Reza Sayah:

    What's interesting is that, this week, there were demonstrations in Tehran other and cities sanctioned and approved by the government, where there were some people who were protesting against the rising fuel prices and a struggling economy.

    They were peaceful protests. And there was no violence. There was no crackdown. Also this week, there was a national newspaper with a headline criticizing Iranian state media of not hearing out the people's concerns.

    And you also have the supreme leader, the government leaders here continuing to say that the people's concerns must be met, something must improve with the economy, that the government must address the people's concern.

    So you're hearing some rhetoric, but it still remains rhetoric. At this point, there's no indication that there's going to be a turnaround for the economy, that the economy is going to improve, and certainly no indication that the government is going to tolerate protests that evolve into something that the government sees as a threat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is special correspondent Reza Sayah reporting from Tehran.

    Thanks, Reza.

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