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Rouhani Treads Lightly In First TV Interview After Protests

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) gives a televised interview in Tehran, January 22, 2018

In his first televised interview since protests rocked the country earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani conceded that there are economic, social, and cultural problems in the country, but promised his government will take steps to address them.

In an interview aired on state TV January 22, Rouhani vowed to address people’s grievances in cooperation with other branches of government and with the “guidance” of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

In early January, protests engulfed the capital Tehran and nearly 100 cities and towns across Iran. Protesters angry over deteriorating economic conditions also voiced general discontent with the regime and its foreign policy.

Critics charge that Rouhani, who made repeated promises to improve the economy and loosen social controls during his two presidential campaigns in 2013 and 2017, has failed to deliver.

While unemployment and inflation increasingly burden average Iranians, suppression of dissent has continued unabated, and hardliners supported by the Supreme Leader have continued to exact control over most facets of life in Iran.

In the interview Rouhani alluded to recent protests, saying that criticism of the government and even street protests “within the limits of the law” are acceptable, but he warned against “insecurity and unnecessary tensions.”

Obtaining permission for legal protests in Iran is extremely difficult even for legal entities such as unions and student councils.

Later in the interview Rouhani made a cautious remark in support of a freer environment so people can become more creative but he did not make any reference to the demands of protesters.

More than 3,700 people were arrested during the protests, and according to official figures, 25 people were killed. Between three and five detained protesters reportedly died in police custody, though authorities claim two of the deaths were suicides and deny the other reported deaths occurred in custody.

An independent committee of former political prisoners and rights defenders announced January 22 that in the case of one man who died in custody, Sina Ghanbari, there were clear signs of severe beating on his body.

Members of parliament are petitioning to be allowed to visit prisons to check on the condition of detainees.

Answering a question about free access to the internet, Rouhani defended his government’s record, saying, “You are aware of all the trouble this government has gone through to try to preserve as much access as possible.”

Security and intelligence organs have blocked tens of thousands of websites for more than a decade, and during recent protests they also blocked Instagram and the popular messaging app Telegram.