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Anti-Government Protests In Iran Reach New Level Of Intensity

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The sound of protests in Iran, which have reached a new level of intensity. Iranian state TV says groups of protesters who were reportedly armed tried to storm police stations and military bases. Nine people died last night, raising the death toll after five days to at least 20. And for the first time, a police officer is among the dead. President Trump commented on the protests, tweeting that, quote, "the people of Iran are finally acting against a brutal and corrupt Iranian regime" and that the quote - and that the U.S. is, quote, "watching." Ali Noorani is following this from Tehran. He's a journalist for AFP. And he joined us on Skype. He says Iran woke this morning to news of that rising death toll.

ALI NOORANI: Today, the protests have not yet started. But as you said, overnight, nine people were killed so far and one Revolutionary Guard and one police officer were among the dead. The rest were protesters and a teenage boy. As the night falls, then we will see if there will be more protests or no. But for now, it's been quiet.

MARTIN: The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted this morning, implying that these protests have been brought on by the, quote, "enemies of Iran." That's how he put it. So this is complicated, right? On the one hand, you've got the president of Iran, Rouhani, acknowledging that the protesters have rights to take to the streets, to demonstrate even against the government. And then you got the supreme leader saying that they're basically enemies of the state. How do you read that? How do protesters read that?

NOORANI: Actually, President Rouhani also did say - I mean, mentioned that there are - and these are the - the enemies are behind this. And officials have said that - even government - Rouhani's officials have said that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and also some other powers are behind this. But the supreme leader also reacted to this very briefly and said that it was the enemy. He didn't explain, of course, as you said. But - that was trying to infiltrate and all of them are uniting against Iran. So that is not very much against what Rouhani said, but it doesn't have the detail. But he said that he is going to speak about this in due time.

MARTIN: It's clearly, though, a mechanism to delegitimize the protesters and their grievances, which at least some of them have been based on economic concerns. President Donald Trump is tweeting about the economic issues in Iran, saying Iran is, quote, "failing at every level." What is actually happening on the economic front?

NOORANI: On the economic front, there is a real issue. President Rouhani himself said that - I think yesterday - that unemployment is - we have no bigger problem than unemployment and that our economy needs an operation. So this is true in these small towns where protests are erupting and becoming violent, people raiding police stations. These are small towns. We have never heard their names before. I mean, I as an Iranian - I heard for - these names, for example, for the first time in my life and I believe that...

MARTIN: Which is interesting - right? - because it means that protests are not just happening in intellectual circles, in universities.

NOORANI: Yes, exactly, exactly. This is not the Tehran, highbrow, educated protests. These are coming from small towns where I believe there are unemployment and poverty problems. And they are being incited by social media hype. A lot of it, of course, is being directed from exile opposition groups, which have been very active on the messaging app Telegram, which has been blocked for the past two days. But people still use VPNs and...

MARTIN: Yeah - finding a way around...

NOORANI: ...And cheap proxy software...

MARTIN: ...Trying to find a way around those bans.

NOORANI: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: We will be following this in the days, perhaps, weeks to come. AFP's Ali Noorani in Tehran this morning, thank you so much for being with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.