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Protests Erupt In Iran Over Devalued Currency

Audie Cornish talks with Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times about protests Wednesday in Tehran over the plunging value of the rial, the country's currency.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Tehran where protest erupted today over the dwindling value of Iran's currency. The rial has lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar in just the past week. And today, demonstrators angrily condemned the Iranian government. Some clashed with police who were sent by government to stop people from exchanging currency.

We have more details from Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times, who spoke with us from Tehran.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: This morning, Iranian anti-riot police crashed the street where Iran's money changers for decades have been exchanging dollars and euros and other foreign currency into rials. They came with motorcycles. They shot the teargas. And basically, small skirmishes occurred between the money changers, some passersby and the police.

And then simultaneously, at the Grand Bazaar, which is about, you know, less than a mile away from the money changing street, shopkeepers closed their shops in protest over the dwindling value of the rial. And over there, normal people, shoppers joined in this protest calling for the government to act on its promises and to return the rial to its old, previous levels.

And this also, apparently, ended in some smaller skirmishes as semi-officials, state media announced that several people - rioters, as they call them - had been arrested over there at the Grand Bazaar. So there have been unrest all over the center of Tehran today.

CORNISH: Do you have a sense about whether these protests were organized or spontaneous?

ERDBRINK: It is very hard to say. Of course, the initial event at the money changer street was triggered by the security forces arriving there and starting to attack people who had gathered there to change dollars. At the same time, the protest in the bazaar could be of a different nature. The Tehran bazaar is traditionally the center of business in Iran. And the people associated with it are often businessmen/politicians who wield a lot of influence.

And they are not fan of Mr. Ahmadinejad. They supported him in the past. But now, as his policies have not worked in their advantage, they are turning against him. And therefore, the nature of today's protest was different from those protests we witnessed here in 2009. Today's protests were about economy. And even though normal people joined in those protests, it is very hard to say who was exactly behind it and how spontaneous they were.

CORNISH: It's widely believed that the rial's value is falling as a result of the West's economic sanctions. But at the same time, why is all this happening now?

ERDBRINK: The decline of the currency has been going on for a long tine. What's been happening is that it has been accelerating. In the last year, the value almost dropped by 50 percent. But in the last week, we saw a lot of very big leap downward. Now, this is happening because there is an increasing feeling among people that the government does not have the solution to solve their problem.

So in a sort of panic reaction compared to, you know, a run on the banks that we have seen in the European countries during the economic crisis over there, people are changing their money in order to make sure that in the future their savings remain instead of vaporized if they kept them in rials.

CORNISH: Is there any sense that the protest could grow or turn into a wider movement?

ERDBRINK: Well, the fall of the rial, the enormous pressures that come from the U.S.-led sanctions effort has really created a lot of hopelessness in Iranian society. One day, people, they blame the Americans for imposing these sanctions. The other day, the people blame Ahmadinejad because he doesn't solve their problems. But generally, there is widespread anger and discontent, and it's up to the Iranian leaders to deal with that. Otherwise, yeah, in the future, they could have a bigger problem on their hands.

CORNISH: Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times, he spoke to us from Tehran where protests broke out over the steep decline in the value of Iran's currency.

Thomas, thank you.

ERDBRINK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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