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What's Ahead For Iran In 2020


Of all the countries in flux as this year comes to an end, few have more at stake heading into 2020 than Iran. At the street level, the Iranian government still seems to be cracking down on even whispers of protest and dissent. Strategically, the country's trying to build its own alliances to push back against U.S. sanctions. Let's bring in NPR's Peter Kenyon, who covers the country and joins us from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.


GREENE: So there are these reports this week that Iran has cut off the Internet again to some areas, possibly to deter protests. I mean, that makes me think that the unrest goes on. Is that right?

KENYON: Well, there have been reports - relatively small gatherings recently. Iranians were seeking to mark 40 days since hundreds of demonstrators - at least hundreds; there's no official tally - were killed in these protests that were violently put down by the security forces. And as for the Internet, yes, Iranian officials are defending their decision to shut it down. A spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council, Ali-Abbas Kadkhodaei (ph), he talked with France 24 news channel, and here's a bit of what he said through an interpreter.


ALI-ABBAS KADKHODAEI: (Through interpreter) If there was a road or a freeway and terrorists come and do something, what's the first thing you will do to the freeway? You will shut it down.

KENYON: So it's interesting to hear him recognize the Internet, the so-called information highway. He's calling it a freeway, a powerful tool for protesters. But as one cyber activist told me, in Iran, the Internet is also a surveillance tool for the security services. I mean, it's used by both sides. And, of course, the ultimate question is, if Iran really wants to solve these problems, it has to do something about the economic pain people are feeling.

GREENE: Which was one reason these protests started in the first place. And I think about economic pain. The United States has this maximum pressure campaign to affect the Iranian economy. What - where do things stand with that, and what role does that play here?

KENYON: It's very much in force, and the Iranian economy is still suffering, as it has been since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions. I mean, Iran tried to get out from under some of the pain by reducing its subsidies on gasoline. That's what sparked the last round of protests.

This dynamic of American pressure and Iranian defiance is probably not going to change with an election year coming up in both countries, elections earlier in the year in Iran, and then later, of course, President Trump will face the voters, and he will very likely count his tough position on Iran as one of his achievements.

GREENE: Well, what about Iran's efforts on the world stage to try as best they can to counter these sanctions? Are they seeing any success?

KENYON: I don't know if you'd say that. They're certainly showing defiance. They're violating the nuclear deal step by step, pushing Europe to do more on trade - limited success there - responding to Trump's buildup of military presence in the Persian Gulf with its own show of force. This is the fourth - beginning of four days of naval exercises with Iran, Russia and China. That's not going to solve any sanctions problems, but it is showing defiance.

GREENE: I mean, we talk about all these escalations. Are there efforts to de-escalate here?

KENYON: Well, there was a prisoner exchange between the two countries. The Swiss handled the U.S. end of things, but that was not suggested as a general warming trend, and it hasn't been. There've been other problems. A U.S. drone was shot down. Britain seized a tanker. So 2020 looks to be just as chilly on the Iran front as 2019 was.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

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

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