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In Iran, tight budget sparks nationwide protests

Thousands protested in Iran this week after the release of a budget that showed the government was cutting subsidies for fuel and schools while directing billions of dollars to the Revolutionary Guards and religious foundations. William Brangham speaks with Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times about his latest reporting in Tehran.

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  • William Brangham:

    Protests continued across Iran today, which are being watched closely by the White House and other world leaders.

    The demonstrations center on economic insecurity and a lack of opportunity, especially for the Islamic republic's young people, who make up almost half the country.

    Now the Iranian government is moving to counter the message of the protests. After a week of growing national protests, the Iranian regime sought to change the narrative. State TV showed tens of thousands of people marching in orchestrated pro-government demonstrations.

    In Markazi province, people held up signs supporting supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But state media ignored cell phone video of protesters tearing down likenesses of Khamenei in Noor Abad, 200 miles southwest of Iran's capital, Tehran.

    Crowds there also burned an ambulance, after accusing the local hospital of refusing to helping their wounded. Supreme Leader Khamenei has blamed the protests on enemies of Iran. And, today, the commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard sent troops into three provinces to put down what he called the new sedition.

    Some in Tehran urged the regime to heed legitimate concerns about the economic woes of the Iranian people.

  • Mohammad Hussein Vakili (through interpreter):

    Protesters are divided into two groups. One group is really protesting, and the other is rioting. Why should they arrest someone like me when I protest the rise in the price of eggs?

  • Parvaneh Alizadeh (through interpreter):

    If the protest slogans are insulting, nothing is going to be resolved. On the other hand, my husband and I are working together, but still cannot make ends meet.

  • William Brangham:

    From Washington, President Trump again tweeted his support for the protests, and he promised, "You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time."

    Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the loss of life, and called for avoiding further violence. And Turkish officials said Iran's President Hassan Rouhani told Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he hopes the unrest — quote — "will end in a couple of days."

    For more on the latest in Iran, I spoke earlier today with Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times. He's in Tehran and has been covering the protests for a week.

    Thomas, you wrote today that the blossoming of these protests was really driven in large part by the leak of a governmental budget that showed big increases in money to clerics and hard-liners and military groups, at the same time as cutting money from social services for the Iranian people.

    Can you tell us a little bit more about that budget and why it struck such a chord?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    The presentation of Iran's budget proposal every year is a big thing, because it contains, you know, most financial information of the country.

    And this year, the proposal was presented quietly, but when people started going through its pages, they found information that they previously hadn't seen, information on Iran's religious institutes, for instance, information on the budget of certain parts of the Revolutionary Guards, information on the budgets for someone who was upkeeping the library of his deceased ayatollah father, all information that showed that the government as part of its annual budget is forced to pay also to these institutions.

    Now, at the same time, they also read in the budget that they would be forced to pay more for fuel. They read in the budget that the monthly cash handouts of Iran, $12 a person, would be canceled for 30 million Iranians. So putting those two pieces of information together was something that made a lot of people on Iran's social media, at least, pretty angry.

  • William Brangham:

    You also wrote that these protests were the result of a miscalculation between more conservative hard-line elements in the Iranian government and what we might call more liberal reformers.

    Can you explain a little bit of that?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    These two groups are constantly at odds with each other.

    And, recently, they both have tried to tap into the dissatisfaction over the bad economy. Last Thursday, a group of men without any prior announcement on the Internet gathered in the eastern city of Mashhad and, out of nowhere seemingly, started shouting slogans about the economy, against President Rouhani, and even against Iran's supreme leader.

    Clips of these protests organized by hard-liners were distributed rapidly across the country. And pretty soon after, people followed suit and started making their own protests.

    And now we are seven days later. There have been protests in 80 different cities. So, yes, you can say that this was a miscalculation on the part of some people.

  • William Brangham:

    The Revolutionary Guards says they're deploying now to three provinces.

    And as reported, President Rouhani allegedly told the Egyptians that this is all going to be over in a couple of days. Is that a sign that there is a crackdown coming or that they really think this is just going to fizzle out?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    Well, actually, the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Jafari, came out today and gave an interview to Iranian media outlets, and actually said — stated that this sedition is over.

    And by sedition, he means the protests that have rocked this country during the past seven days. General Jafari wanted to give the signal that this wasn't happening in all the provinces.

    President Rouhani has also been telling foreign visitors that the protests will also be over.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump again has signaled his support for these protesters. Are they hearing that support? And how is it that the support is being interpreted?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    Well, we have been talking a lot about social media, so — and President Trump is very energetic on social media, so his messages do make it here into Iran.

    And while there might be a part of the protesters that is pleased with the support of Mr. Trump, there are, of course, also a lot of people who remember the long and difficult history between Iran and the United States.

    And they might say that they are protesting for legitimate reasons, but that the support of Mr. Trump is actually making it harder for them to protest, because it enables Iranian hard-liners to call the protesters foreign agents working for the Americans, for instance.

    So it's not, let's say, a broad welcoming by all the protesters when they see these messages of support by Mr. Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times, thanks so much.

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    Thank you.

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