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Iranian president calls for calm amid deadly protests

Iran saw a fifth day of anti-government protests on Monday with at least 12 fatalities reported. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for calm amid the regime’s most serious challenge to its rule since the 2009 mass demonstrations. William Brangham learns more from The New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran.

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  • William Brangham:

    In Iran tonight, leaders of the Islamic republic are facing the most serious challenge to their rule in nearly a decade. Protests have erupted across the country, with at least 13 killed so far, and growing fears of a new crackdown.

    Iranian state TV initially ignored these protests, but no more. Today, it broadcast what it said was the aftermath of deadly overnight clashes between protesters and police.

  • Man (through interpreter):

    Unfortunately, in total, some 10 people died in various cities last night. During the unrest, some public places were set on fire or seriously damaged.

  • William Brangham:

    The report said armed protesters tried to take over police stations and military bases, though it didn't say where that occurred.

    The unrest began Thursday, in the city of Mashhad, hometown of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Demonstrations initially over economic woes quickly spread across the country, including the capital, Tehran.

    In the process, crowds began directly challenging the very head of the regime. They yelled "Death to Khamenei," and some even shouted support for the late shah, who was ousted in the 1979 revolution.

    In Tehran, on Sunday, protesters overturned police vans and threw rocks at security forces, who in turn used tear gas, batons and live fire. These are the biggest protests in Iran since 2009's Green Movement, when masses accused then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of rigging his reelection.

    Security forces swiftly and harshly cracked down on that uprising. This time, though, the response has been somewhat more restrained. President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged Sunday that many Iranians haven't seen the economic benefits they were promised after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.

    Hassan Rouhani (through interpreter): The people have a right to criticize all over the country. But criticism is entirely different from violence.

    While those responsible in our country must respect the grounds for legal complaints of the people, at the same time, we must not allow the creation of an atmosphere where supporters of the revolution and our people worry about their lives and security.

  • William Brangham:

    Today, officials in Najafabad in Western Iran said protesters shot at police, killing one and injuring three more. Other officials warned the demonstrators will — quote — "pay the price."

    Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani (through interpreter): Those who carry out acts of sabotage, riot and unrest, and set fire to public and private venues and properties should be dealt with strongly.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump encouraged the protesters on Twitter this weekend, and declared it's time for change in Iran.

    Meanwhile, hundreds of people have been arrested, and the government blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram to try and limit the organization of more protests.

    For more on the latest in Iran, I spoke a short while ago with Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times. He's in Tehran.

    And I began by asking him to describe the scene today.

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    So, I was out on the streets of Tehran today, like many, many other people who were walking the pavements, maybe with the intention to protest or to shout slogans.

    But they definitely weren't able to, because the lines — the central squares of Tehran were lined with police officers in riot gear, plainclothes officers on motorcycles.

    Clearly, the decision had been made today to not allow these protests, at least in the capital, from growing any further. But, despite that, I saw a group of 50 protesters that came out on the streets, shouted slogans against Iran's supreme leader, shouted slogans against Iran's intervention in Syria and Iraq, who burned down some trash bins on the streets, and then were, of course, chased by the police and ran off.

  • William Brangham:

    And do you have a sense of what it is that these protesters actually want?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    Well, these protests are based on the broad feeling of discontent among average, ordinary Iranians.

    And the root of this discontent is inside Iran's economy. Now, of course, Iran's economy has been under sanctions during the past 10 years and continues to be under unilateral American sanctions, even after the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers.

    It is still impossible to send and receive money to this country. But at the same time, Iran's economy has also been mismanaged by Iran's leaders, not for the past 10 years, but for decades already.

    Well, as a result, there are many young people here who are without a job, who cannot make ends meet and who for years already have been complaining about the economy.

  •  William Brangham:

    And, Thomas, who are these protesters? Who is it that is actually out on the streets today?

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    Well, there are two groups of protesters.

    There is a big group of people who are dissatisfied with the economical situation. And also because, in Iran, everything is political, as this is an ideological country, they are ultimately also dissatisfied with the political choices their leaders have made.

    Now, those people can be taxi drivers, lawyers, housewives. They are the ones who might intend to go on the street, but are not going so at this point in time, because they are afraid to lose whatever they have. Maybe they will get in trouble with the law.

    But then there is a smaller group of young people who are maybe poor, who feel as if they have nothing to lose, who seems to be very determined to go out on the street, to shout these slogans, and to, even at points, throw stones at the police, vandalize, burn down dustbins and other things, in order to make their point.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Thomas Erdbrink:

    OK. Thank you for having me.

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