January 2, 2018 1:41 pm

Iran’s deadly protests: Why thousands are clashing with the government

ABOVE: Anti-government demonstrations continue to intensify in Iran as protesters march the streets demanding higher wages and an end to corruption.

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More than 20 people have died and hundreds have been arrested following violent clashes in Iran as anti-government protests continue across the country.

READ MORE: 9 more killed in Iran after anti-government protests continue

The demonstrations, which started Thursday, mark the largest outcry since the 2009 Green Movement when protests erupted after a disputed election.

Why is this happening now?

The protests are a reaction to Iran’s weak economy and rising fuel and food prices.

But the economy isn’t the only reason, according to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

Sanctions have fueled the economic problems in the country, he said. “But sanction relief also has not worked.”

WATCH: Iran anti-government protests turn deadly


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There was an expectation for Iran’s economy to improve after sanctions were lifted in 2015 from the Iran nuclear deal, he said. But not enough jobs were created, leading to nationwide dissatisfaction with the government.

“To get jobs, there needed to be investments from banks. But banks are not willing to invest as they are afraid Trump will back out of the nuclear deal,” Parsi said.

READ MORE: Donald Trump refusal to certify Iran nuclear deal sparks backlash

Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Western aircraft. But the economic improvement has not reached the average Iranian.

Unemployment stood at 12.4 per cent in this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Center of Iran, up 1.4 percentage points from the previous year. Youth unemployment reached 28.8 per cent in 2017.

WATCH: Pro-government rallies held in Iran after protests

What is happening to the protesters?

Demonstrations started in the northeast city of Mashhad and then spread to several cities across the country, such as the country’s capital, Tehran.

READ MORE: Iranian protesters attack police stations as Trump, Netanyahu voice support

The protests were at first peaceful but as the message of government dissatisfaction spread, so did the demonstrations and the violence.

Since Thursday, there have been 21 deaths, including a police officer.

WATCH: Armed protesters in Iran try to overrun military bases and police stations 

In Tehran alone, 450 protesters have been arrested in the last three days as people chanted anti-government slogans, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported Tuesday.

The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court reportedly warned Tuesday that arrested protesters could potentially face the death penalty when they are put on trial.

How is it different than the 2009 protests?

The unrest is the biggest public outcry against Iran’s government since 2009 when the disputed presidential election saw millions take to the streets in what became the known as the Green Movement.

The current protests are far smaller than the demonstrations in 2009 but have been more violent, according to Parsi.

READ MORE: Iran protests fueled by young people more interested in jobs than Islamist idealism

“The death toll is now far worse than the 2009 protests,” he said.

Parsi said the Green Movement was a “politically sophisticated reformist movement” that had organization, leadership and a nonviolent undertone.

READ MORE: Iran protests continue unabated despite government move to block social media

Today, however, the people protesting are financially struggling and have nothing to lose, he said.

There also isn’t a presence of a central figure, making it very difficult to see when the protests will end.

What is Iran doing?

On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that people have a right to protest, but also condemned the violence.

“Iran is trying to calm the situation down, but it is not working,” Parsi said.

WATCH: Iranian president says people have right to protest, but must avoid violence

The government fears the protests will continue and turn more violent, and Iran may have to “step up its oppressive capacity,” he said.

“There is a lot of worry it could lead to a very bloody situation.”

The government has so far refrained from dispatching the elite Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia, and plain-clothed security forces who crushed the 2009 uprising and killed dozens of protesters.

The Iranian government has also attempted to block access to Instagram and Telegram, used by activists.

On Tuesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the protests on “enemies of Iran” who are meddling in its internal affairs.

“In the recent days’ incidents, enemies of Iran utilized various means — including money, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatuses — to create problems for the Islamic system,” he said, in his first public remarks since the demonstrations began.

What is Trump saying?

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that “the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.”

“All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,’” Trump wrote, apparently referring to the nuclear deal reached under his predecessor. “The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”

Rouhani shot back at Trump on Sunday, saying the U.S. president “has forgotten that he had called Iranian people ‘terrorists’ a few months ago.”

Parsi believes Trump is trying to fan the fire with these remarks, but no one seems to be paying attention.

WATCH: Donald Trump kicks off 2018 with tweets taking aim at Pakistan, Iran

“No one in Iran is listening to Trump. He is the wrong messenger and he has lost all credibility there,” he said.

Many in Iran distrust Trump because he has refused to re-certify the 2015 nuclear deal and his travel bans have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas.

What is Canada saying?

On Saturday, the Canadian government released a statement expressing support for people protesting in Iran.

READ MORE: What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for Canadians?

“Canada is encouraged by the Iranian people who are exercising their basic right to protest peacefully,” the statement read.

“We call on the Iranian authorities to uphold and respect democratic and human rights. Canada will continue to support the fundamental rights of Iranians, including the right to freedom of expression.”

*With files from the Associated Press and Reuters

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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