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Higher Gasoline Prices In Iran Fuel Demonstrations


Iran's government is struggling to shut down widespread protests that started after a rise in fuel prices.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

GREENE: Now, the news coming from Iran is sketchy because the government has shut down the Internet. But what we do know is that last week, the government hiked gas prices by 50%. Protests broke out and turned violent over the weekend. Several people are reported to have been killed. The country's supreme leader has condemned this unrest, which has reportedly spread to about 100 cities. In a tweet, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed solidarity with the people of Iran. And here's what U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates John Rakolta said on Sunday.


JOHN RAKOLTA: We're not advocating regime change. We're going to let the Iranian people decide for themselves their future. But their future is to be part of the world community.

GREENE: NPR international correspondent Peter Kenyon has been following these developments from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


GREENE: So we're talking about 100 cities, reportedly. I mean, how intense are these protests?

KENYON: Well, the intensity depends on where you are. Today, the government's saying calm is restored. Whether that lasts remains to be seen. U.N. officials are calling on Tehran to stop using live fire against demonstrators. They're shocked at the loss of life. These protests started pretty peacefully after Friday prayers last week, but there was violence then over the weekend. Gas stations were a popular target to underline the anger at this hike in the fuel prices. And by the way, that also includes this new rationing system, which means if you're a driver and you go over the ration limit, which is about 15 gallons a month, then the price goes up 300%. And by Western standards, we should note, even these higher prices are not that high. But in the context of the Iranian economy, it's going to cause pain, especially for lower income level folks.

GREENE: Well, what is the government doing? I mean, I mentioned they've shut down the Internet. Is - are there signs they're going to do more to crack down on this?

KENYON: Well, crackdown is the right word. The police and security forces were sent out on the streets. There have been clashes with demonstrators. And there's a warning that it could get much worse. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned that any further rioting would be, quote, "dealt with decisively." On Sunday, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came out, and he said, yes, I support the fuel price increase. He also called the protesters thugs, which was seen by some as an authorization for a crackdown. And it may have put a bit of a chill on the numbers of people turning out after that. His endorsement may be also be in part of what spurred the U.N. and others to call for calm and an end to the use of lethal force.

GREENE: Peter, if there is economic pain and it's new or growing in some way, is it tied at all to these economic sanctions put on Iran by the United States?

KENYON: Some Iranians think so. The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is blaming the U.S. He was responding to a comment by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had tweeted that the U.S. was with the people of Iran. Zarif said any American regime that imposes coercive economic sanctions, bars delivery of food and drugs to the elderly and medical patients can never claim it's supporting the Iranian nation. And so it's - yes, the U.S. sanctions are definitely being blamed.

GREENE: How hard is life there in general economically?

KENYON: It's not good. The unemployment is up. The Iranian rial is down. People's savings are being eaten up. A frequent target of anger is Europe, who had pledged to keep the 2015 nuclear deal going and keep trade going. But so far, they've had very limited success in doing that.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting on the situation in Iran from his post in Istanbul. Peter, thank you so much.

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

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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