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Anti-Government Protests In Iran: Rouhani Calls For Peace, Lashes Out At Trump

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Anti-government demonstrations have continued on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities over the weekend. Protesters have called attention to the declining economic situation in the country as well as corruption. Some have even called for President Hassan Rouhani to step down.

Demonstrators, in some cases, have been met with a violent response from government forces. And social media platforms like Telegram and Instagram, which had been used to organize the protests, have reportedly been temporarily restricted by Iranian authorities.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the unrest in Iran from Istanbul and joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ray.

SUAREZ: President Hassan Rouhani has just made some public comments about the protests. What did he have to say?

KENYON: Well, he made a number of comments. He said people do have a right to disagree. They have a right to protest. But they don't, he says, have a right to violence or to destruction of property. He seemed to be striking, not necessarily a conciliatory tone but at least a call for calm.

He did lash out at President Trump, who's been active on Twitter. Rouhani warned that Trump, as a sworn enemy of Iran - those are his words - he has no right to be sympathizing with the Iranian people. So that's where it stands at the moment.

SUAREZ: These protests have been going on for days now, with some violent clashes - even a couple of deaths. What set it off, and what did the demonstrators want?

KENYON: Well, it began in a very conservative part of Iran - in Mashhad, home to the hardline cleric who lost to Rouhani in the presidential race in May this year. People took to the streets there. They were upset, by some accounts, because of local economic shortages. But by the next day - within 24 hours, the protests had spread. They'd taken on a much more political, anti-government tone in general. And that has continued to build over the weekend.

Police and security forces have responded. They've used tear gas, water cannons. And, as you mentioned, out in western Iran, two demonstrators were shot and killed. The local government (ph) told state TV that he thought it must have been, quote, "foreign agents" who did that. Others are skeptical of that.

The government seems to be holding back from a full crackdown. But it's getting harder as this day - Sunday - went on to get information out of Tehran, so that could be changing.

SUAREZ: Weren't things supposed to be improving in Iran after sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal?

KENYON: Well, yes. And billions of dollars in frozen assets came into the country with the implementation of the nuclear agreement in 2015. Many sanctions have been lifted. The business deals, of course, take time to develop. That would bring in jobs and money.

And there's a lot of fragmentation in the power structure. President Rouhani doesn't control all the levers of power. There's a lot more uncertainty now also from Washington because of the tough line that the Trump administration wants to take on Iran.

SUAREZ: Do these demonstrations look likely to continue?

KENYON: I'd say it's fluid. They are widespread. There doesn't seem to be a central authority directing them, so they seem to have almost a life of their own. It started in conservative areas. It could be moving. We're just going to have to see what happens in the coming days.

SUAREZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.