ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Protests continued in Iran today for the sixth day in a row. The government says more than 20 people have died. Hundreds have been arrested. The Trump administration stands by the protesters. In a bit, we'll examine the president's remarks and their potential impact on Iran. First, NPR's Jackie Northam reports on the economic concerns that have driven Iranians to the streets.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: These are the largest demonstrations in Iran in nearly a decade. They started in the city of Mashhad but quickly spread to other towns and cities across the country, taking many government officials and analysts by surprise. Today, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, broke his silence.
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ALI KHAMENEI: (Foreign language spoken).
NORTHAM: Khamenei blamed the violence on, quote, "the enemies of Iran." But it was sparked by the dire state of Iran's economy. Food prices have shot up. There's been a significant rollback in cash subsidies and a 50 percent increase in gasoline prices recently. Elizabeth Rosenberg, a sanctions specialist with the Center for a New American Security, says this is all part of an economic reform program instituted by President Hassan Rouhani. And it has helped the economy a bit.
ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: Inflation has improved. There are certainly some small amounts of additional investment - foreign investment as well as domestic investment and better access to foreign exchange.
NORTHAM: But Iran's economy still has a long way to go. The standard of living for the average person has remained the same if not gotten worse for the past decade. Cliff Kupchan, the head of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, says unemployment is high particularly among the younger generation, where it hovers around 24 percent. Kupchan says many Iranians became angry over President Rouhani's 2018 budget, which he says was unusually transparent.
CLIFF KUPCHAN: For the first time, they became aware of how much money goes to revolutionary institutions, religious institutions and entitlements and how little money is available for the national development program, for non-oil job creation, which is what Iran really needs.
NORTHAM: Kupchan says many Iranians were hoping, believed that the economy would rebound when the nuclear sanctions deal was signed about two years ago. The deal allowed Iran to do more international trade in exchange for limiting its nuclear program.
KUPCHAN: Very, very senior Iranian officials have been very explicit to me that when they entered the nuclear deal, it was a business deal for them. It wasn't about being good guys. They did it to boost their economy and to create jobs.
NORTHAM: Kupchan says the nuclear deal hasn't created a windfall. Most U.S. firms are not allowed to do business with Iran because of remaining non-nuclear sanctions. Those sanctions have made many foreign companies wary of investing in Iran for fear of breaking U.S. law. There's also uncertainty about what the Trump administration plans to do about Iran. Today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., slammed the Iranian government over the violence.
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NIKKI HALEY: We can expect more outrageous abuses in the days to come. We will be calling for an emergency session both here in New York and at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
NORTHAM: President Trump will also have the option to increase pressure on Iran. He has the option later this month to reimpose sanctions that were eased under the nuclear deal. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.