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How is the Iranian government responding to protests?

President Donald Trump tweeted that the ‘U.S. is watching’ Iran’s continuing protests. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, analyzes how the Iranian government is responding to the unrest.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the protests in Iran.

    And we take a closer look at whether the Iranian government is united in how to respond with Abbas Milani. He's director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University.

    Mr. Milani, thank you very much for joining us.

    Before I ask you about the government's response, how do we know whether these protests are organized, whether they're spontaneous? What do we know about that?

  • Abbas Milani:

    I think what we know is that they're spread over a remarkably large expanse of the country.

    They're occurring in some of the places that have never been centers for action against the government, small towns, where people cannot hide behind anonymity, where the regime knows everybody.

    So it is to me an indication of the level of despair. Where in places never before the centers of discontent, you are seeing massive demonstrations, either in size or in the ferocity of the slogans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does that tell you about what is bringing these people out into the streets?

  • Abbas Milani:

    I think what it tells me is that the result of about 30 years of economic mismanagement, of corruption, of cronyism, the increased pressure as a result of the sanctions have created a moment, I think, where people are — and new categories of people.

    Again, you have to remember this regime relied on the poor, considers itself the regime of the dispossessed. And it is hither to mostly these dispossessed elements who have come into the streets, sometimes in cities notorious for their religious piety, from Mashhad, to Qom, to Najafabad, which I think has the distinction of having contributed people to war in Iraq in terms of the number of people killed.

    These are now the centers of activities. And this gradual grind of double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, no prospects of economic improvement, the remarkable cronyism, recent publication of budget figures that show millions of dollars have been given to religious endowments that have done virtually nothing to contribute, all of that I think created a tipping point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what do you make, Professor, of the regime's response?

    Today, among other things, the supreme leader said that it's enemies of the country that are behind this.

  • Abbas Milani:

    I think it is characteristics of Mr. Khamenei. He has a paranoid view of the world. He doesn't believe that he has made any mistakes. He has yet to accept any mistakes for any of the major policy decisions that he is directly responsible for.

    I think many in the regime, including Rouhani, have long realized that the status quo is not tenable. They know the level of disgruntlement. They know the more serious economic structural challenges that are on the horizon. Iran faces some truly remarkable economic challenges, from the falling price of oil, to water shortage, to unemployment, to the failure for investments to come into Iran.

    None of these can be solved unless Mr. Khamenei and his conservative allies accept responsibility for the catastrophe that they have created hither to, and maybe allow, maybe — it's not too late yet — maybe allow more prudent policies to emerge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you believe there is a chance he will do that?

  • Abbas Milani:

    Everything I know about him, everything I have read of him, everything I have watched of him, unfortunately, doesn't give me room for optimism.

    My only hope is that people around him and people who have a stake in the regime, people who realize the bloodshed that will come, will prevail upon him to change his views. I hear that he's going to give a talk this Friday. And if the talk that he gave this morning is any indication, I see very little hope of the much, much-needed tone of contrition that he needs to have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there room for dissent, for debate within the leadership of the country?

  • Abbas Milani:

    I think there is.

    I think there is considerable room for the factional dissent within the regime. They don't make it in public. Occasionally, it emerges in public. They all have to be very careful of not causing the ire of Mr. Khamenei.

    And I think that has been one of the problems. Again, for example, there are a number of people who have been arrested illegally. They're under house arrest, the leader of the Green Revolution.

    Most leaders of the country, other than Khamenei, know that this is a stupid policy, it's illegal, it's counterproductive, but they don't dare openly challenge him.

    But behind closed doors, one hears unconfirmed reports that more and more people are beginning to realize that his path is virtually a path of a grim future for Iran, because I think the level of anger is so remarkable. And there are forces that are instigating more anger on both sides.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, just quickly, what effect do you see President Trump's tweets having? He's been very critical of the regime, calling them corrupt, saying it's time for change. Is that helpful or not?

  • Abbas Milani:

    I think in some ways it has been very helpful, because I think people need to know, the Iranian regime needs to know, as Mr. Trump said, that the world is watching.

    But some of Mr. Trump's policies of the past have made the effectiveness of those tweets, I think, less. The fact that there is a ban on Iranians, the fact that he has sided almost completely with Saudi Arabia in the region, the fact that he called the Persian Gulf the Arabian Gulf, all of these have helped undermine the potentially far more effectiveness of support, much-needed support, for the Iranian people, and I think Europe, too.

    People are increasingly trying to see what Europe will do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Abbas Milani at Stanford University, thank you very much.

  • Abbas Milani:

    Thank you.

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