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Economic Unrest Sparks Turmoil In Iran


Protesters clashed with police in Iran today. It's the fifth day of demonstrations in the country. State-run media reporting more than a dozen people have died, including protesters and police. The protest started because of economic problems, and that's something the international deal over Iran's nuclear energy program was supposed to deal with. To talk about this, we are joined by Suzanne Maloney. She's a former State Department adviser, and she's now with the Brookings Institution. Welcome.


MCEVERS: So how rare are protests like these in Iran?

MALONEY: Iranians have come to the streets with some regularity over the course of the past 39 years, often protesting over labor concerns or backpay. But what we're seeing today is something quite different in the sense that it began with at least the articulation of economic concerns and very quickly morphed into something much more anti-government, directly confronting the most important aspects of the Islamic Republic's ideology. And the other distinct difference that we're seeing in what's happening on the ground today in Iran is the fact that it has spread. Whether that's because of prior coordination or simply because of the contagion effect of information technology, we don't know.

MCEVERS: So, you know, you talk about how these protests started because of economic concerns. I mean, what is the state of Iran's economy? How bad is it for people?

MALONEY: Well, in fact, Iran has experienced considerable economic growth since the implementation of the nuclear deal early last year. But what we haven't seen is the trickle-down effect that many Iranians were anticipating. Iranians, for years, have been clamoring for more jobs, more opportunities, greater interaction with the world. And I think that the nuclear deal was sold by Rouhani and other advocates of diplomacy as a very quick fix to problems that, in many cases, are decades in the making and require very difficult structural reforms to address.

MCEVERS: And here in the U.S., President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have tweeted their support for the Iranian people. What do you make of that? How do you read those statements?

MALONEY: Well, I think it was predictable that the Trump administration would move very quickly out of the gate to associate itself with the people on the streets both because of the desire on the part of the president to differentiate himself from his predecessor - Barack Obama was relatively reluctant to embrace the massive protests that erupted in 2009 over a contested election - but also because the Trump administration has a very fixed view of Iran, which is focused not so much on the nuclear deal, not so much on Iran's regional activities but very directly on the belief that this is a systemic problem, that it's the nature of the regime. And without addressing the nature of the regime, the rest of the problems can't be successfully addressed. So I think it was predictable that Trump would tweet and predictable that he would be looking to align himself with the protesters.

MCEVERS: You know, while they are critical of the government, the vice president called it a brutal regime. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been more willing to talk with other countries and make deals than past Iranian leaders. I mean, how do U.S. policymakers see him, you know, compared to his opposition or those who might take his place in Iran?

MALONEY: Well, Rouhani comes from a sort of centrist place in the political spectrum in Iran, but he's not really a reformist. And he hasn't been able to enact deep political changes that satisfy the demands of many Iranians. He's focused primarily on the economy. I think his attempt was to try to deliver more jobs and more opportunities in a way that would satisfy the more immediate expectations of the population. And by his own standard, he's had real difficulty doing that because of the long-term problems and also because, ultimately, the nuclear deal didn't wholly end the sanctions regime in Iran. It only lifted or waived those sanctions that were related to the nuclear program.

MCEVERS: Suzanne Maloney is deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. We reached her on Skype. Thank you very much.

MALONEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.