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Tens of thousands of people have protested in Iran. Here’s why.

At the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, Iran has seen its largest demonstrations since the 2009 presidential election. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Erin Cunningham, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: STR/The Washington Post)

Anti-government protests in Iran, where demonstrations of political unrest are rare, have left at least 20 people dead — and do not appear to be subsiding.

Since Thursday, tens of thousands of protesters have formed the largest outpouring of government opposition since the volatile 2009 presidential elections. The scale and ferocity of the protests had clerical leaders in Tehran struggling Tuesday to respond to what is likely the most serious internal crisis the country has faced this decade.

Latest: Protests threaten Iran’s ascendant role in the Middle East

Iran has a powerful security force, but leaders have not yet called on the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia, who flattened the 2009 demonstrations by killing dozens of protesters.

Why are people protesting?

On Dec. 28, protests broke out in the northern city of Mashhad, spurred at first by concern over the country's stunted economy and the high prices of basic goods like eggs, which saw a 40 percent jump in price. Over the next six days, the protests in more than two dozen towns would turn into an open rebellion against Iran's Islamic leadership itself.

Protesters' chants and attacks on government buildings upended a system that had little tolerance for dissent, with some demonstrators even shouting “Death to the dictator!” — referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and asking security forces to join them, The Post's Erin Cunningham reported.

In Iran, where ruling clerics hold much of the power, some protesters are frustrated that social freedoms and political openness are being suppressed by the establishment. Working-class Iranians who want higher wages and a solution to unemployment are frustrated that the economy has been slow to grow despite the lifting of sanctions under an international nuclear deal.

Iranian authorities have blocked access to social media and messaging apps that would allow demonstrators to organize, according to the New York Times. The decision prompted President Trump to tweet that the country had “closed down the internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!”

The protests appeared to have been initially caused by President Hassan Rouhani's leak of a proposed government budget last month that called for slashing cash subsidies to the poor and raising fuel prices to lower debt, The Post reported. But the plan also included fees for car registration and an unpopular departure tax.

Protesters are also demanding to know why Iran has spent billions of dollars on foreign policy in the Middle East at a time when people are struggling at home. Iran has sent cash, weapons and fighters to Syria, for example, and has financially supported Palestinians and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

Unemployment for young people, half of Iran's population, is at 40 percent, the New York Times reported.

Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal thanks to resumed oil exports, although growth outside the oil sector has sagged. Global oil markets have already seen the effects of the unrest in Iran, an OPEC member. Oil futures pushed above $60 a barrel, close to a 30-month high, The Post reported.

How intense are the protests?

The revolts have left at least 20 people dead — including nine overnight Tuesday — after protesters clashed with security forces in locations around the country.

Videos online show protesters running from tear gas and water cannons and others confronting police. About 90 percent of those arrested in protests were under 25 years old, Reuters reported, citing official figures.

Six of the latest causalities took place during an attack on a police station in Qahdarijan, according to state television. The clashes were allegedly sparked by protesters who tried to steal guns from the station. State television also reported an 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, and a member of the Revolutionary Guard was killed in the town of Najafabad.

A semiofficial news agency reported Tuesday that 450 people have been arrested in Tehran since Saturday. The ILNA news agency cited Ali Asghar Nasserbakht, a security deputy governor of Tehran, in its report.

“I demand all prosecutors across the country to get involved,” said Sadegh Larijani, according to the Associated Press. Their “approach should be strong,” he said.

Protesters could also potentially face the death penalty when their cases come to trial, according to the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, the AP reported.

Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying: “Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, which is a death penalty offense in Iran.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people marched in pro-government rallies called to counter the earlier demonstrations. The marches, broadcast by Iranian state media, had the hallmarks of previous state-organized gatherings, with crowds waving Iranians flags and holding placards with slogans backing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, The Post's Erin Cunningham reported.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, said the marches marked an end to the anti-government protests, which he referred to as “the sedition.”

Much is still uncertain about the size and endurance of the protesters. Some analysts anticipate the collapse of the regime, though it is unclear whether leadership or political aspirations exist within the anti-government movement. Others have drawn parallels to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

How do the current protests compare to 2009?

The protests are the country's largest since a 2009 demonstrations over disputed election results. At its height, the 2009 protest, known as the “Green Movement,” saw as many as 3 million peaceful demonstrators challenge official claims that then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election in a landslide. After six months, the protesters were quashed by the country's security forces.

Unlike the 2009 revolt, the current protests have sprung throughout country, including provincial, traditionally conservative areas that rarely participate in the political activism led by groups in Tehran and other cities. The 2009 protests were primarily fueled by the capital's educated elite and urban middle class, while videos circulating online suggest younger, working-class people form the bulk of the current protest's numbers.

Those younger people, some from towns and small cities in rural areas, are now expressing their frustrations with the political elite, who they say have appropriated the economy to their own benefit, according to the New York Times.

Since the new protests began, the pro-reform figures of the 2009 uprising, some of whom remain under house arrests, have been noticeably absent. Protesters have not called for their release.

The “protesters have either become more radicalized in their demands and/or simply don’t belong to the generation that experienced the events of 2009 as adults,” Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Iran coverage at the online news portal Al-Monitor, wrote Sunday.

How have Iranian leaders responded?

Khamenei posted comments Tuesday asserting the current protests were brought on by the country’s “enemies” — often used as shorthand for the United States, its allies and anti-government Iranian exiles.

“In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,” said the statement from Khamenei on his official website.

Rouhani, a relative moderate who was reelected to a second term in May, too spoke out, and tried to downplay the significance of the violence, according to CNN.

“Our great nation has witnessed a number of similar incidents in the past and has comfortably dealt with them,” Rouhani said in a meeting with Iranian members of parliament Monday. “This is nothing.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reacted to anti-government protests in a televised speech Dec. 31, rebuffing President Trump’s support of the dissent. (Video: Reuters)

How has Trump responded?

The protests provide a glimpse into Trump's policies toward Iran — whether he will adopt a tougher stance in dealing with the country than President Barack Obama, for example, and whether he will call for regime change.

On Friday, Trump tweeted that Iranians are “finally getting wise,” and said the administration was keeping a close eye on the government's violence. He has also suggested the possibility of reimposed sanctions.

His language was similar to that of Obama in 2009, when he responded to the challenged presidential election. Obama said he respected Iranian sovereignty, but that he was “deeply troubled” by the government's violence against peaceful protesters.

Trump has continued to tweet about the conflict since, though it’s unlikely his tweets will lead Iranians to further revolt.

“He has no friends in that country,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The Post's Carol Morello and Anne Gearan. “His first act as a president was to ban Iranians from traveling here. But if his statements are irrelevant to what’s going on in Iran, his actions are relevant. If he does not continue raising nuclear sanctions and pulls out of the JCPOA [nuclear agreement], that will have a more chilling effect on the willingness of anyone to invest in Iran and trade with Iran.”

A senior Trump administration official said Wednesday that U.S. officials were surprised by the outbreak of the protests and how they have spread.

“We’re looking at something new, something we haven’t seen in Iran since the Islamic Revolution,” the official said, adding that the novelty of the protests is making it difficult for U.S. officials to predict where they will lead.

Erin Cunningham and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

Anti-government protests spurred by economic woes hit Iran

A pro-government demonstrator stands under an Iranian flag during a march in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz. (Morteza Jaberian/AFP/Getty Images)

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