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What’s driving the deadly protests in Iran?

Iranians continued to demonstrate against the clerical leadership on Monday amid economic hardships. Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the factors behind the unrest and how the protests differ from previous ones.

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  • William Brangham:

    We return now to the protests in Iran.

    How significant are they? And how are they different from what we saw in Iran in 2009?

    Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and writes extensively about Iran.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, how significant are these protests?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think the protests are significant. They are different than the major protests of 2009 in a few different ways.

    Number one, in 2009, you had millions of people take to the streets. So far, we have seen in these protests tens of thousands. So the scale has been smaller.

    But what’s been larger than 2009 is the geographic scope. In 2009, it was mostly in the city of Tehran. These protests began in very religious cities, like Mashhad and Qom, and spilled over to smaller provincial cities. So the geographic scope has really been unprecedented.

    And number three is that the slogans of these protests have been far more intense than 2009. In 2009, people were saying, where’s my vote? They want their vote back.

    This time around, people are calling for death to the supreme leader and end to the Islamic republic.

  • William Brangham:

    And just for people who weren’t aware of Islamic society — Iranian society, that is a very striking thing for people to be chanting publicly.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, absolutely, because we’re talking about a highly repressive authoritarian regime. This is a government which has a monopoly of coercion. They’re highly organized and well-practiced in the science of repression.

    And those who are protesting are really leaderless. They’re unorganized. They’re for the most part unarmed. But I think there is one really important statistic to again contrast with 2009, which is, in the 2009 protest, only one million Iranians had smartphones.

    Now nearly 48 million Iranians have smartphones. So the state’s ability to control communication and information is much more difficult when people have smartphones in their pockets with video cameras.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you have a sense — I asked Thomas Erdbrink the same question — why is this happening now? And what is it — from this mass of people, what is it that they seem to want?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, I think that people’s frustrations have been boiling over for many months now, in fact, you could argue decades.

    There is a theory of popular uprisings which says that they commonly happen when people’s expectations are raised and then suddenly dashed. And people’s expectations were raised by the nuclear deal. They thought that quality of life would be better. And it really hasn’t improved meaningfully as a result of the nuclear deal.

    So, I think Thomas is right, that it’s, above all, economic frustrations. But in a place like Iran, which is not only politically authoritarian, but also economically and socially authoritarian, all of that has really come out and become evident.

  • William Brangham:

    We saw President Trump supporting the protesters in a tweet and saying that there needs to be change in Iran.

    Is that helpful? I mean, if you were advising the president, what would you urge the U.S. policy to be in this regard?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think the U.S. government needs to be careful.

    Of course, when there are protests against a regime whose official slogan is “Death to America,” all American politicians are going to want to support those protests. But there’s a difference between carefully crafted official statements of solidarity, which I think is right, in contrast to kind of freewheeling presidential tweets, which could backfire.

    But I think more important than what the U.S. says is what the U.S. does. And it’s true that the U.S. has limited leverage over Iran, but one thing we should be doing is everything in our power to inhibit the regime’s ability to control communications, to control information, and to repress society.

    And one way of doing that is to make clear to companies and countries around the world that they will be censured if they provide the Iranian regime the means and the technology to censor and black out communications.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, you heard Thomas say that he saw clear evidence that the government is trying to stop these protests. What is your sense? Are they going to continue? Will they grow, or will this be it?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think we can salute the courage of these protests with — while at the same time being sober about their prospects for success.

    As I said, this is a regime which is very well-practiced in the science of brutality. They are deeply resolved to stay in power. And the protesters, as I said, they don’t have leadership. They’re unorganized. They don’t have arms.

    So, I think that they face enormous hurdles.

  • William Brangham:

    Karim Sadjadpour, thank you very much.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Thank you.

     

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