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Morning Brief

Iran Grapples With Major Unrest

The swift crackdown on protesters suggests Iran's leaders are unsettled by the widespread anger.

Iranian protesters hold a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in Isfahan, Iran, on Nov. 16.
Iranian protesters hold a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in Isfahan, Iran, on Nov. 16. AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Iran is cracking down on anti-government protests, U.S. Democrats take the presidential debate stage, and Shinzo Abe becomes Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

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Iran Responds to Protests With Crackdown

Anti-government protesters are still in the streets across Iran, though a nationwide internet shutdown and state control of the media mean that the exact scale of the demonstrations is difficult to know. Amnesty International said Tuesday that “credible reports” indicated security forces had killed at least 106 protesters since last week—though the real figure could be higher.

The unrest presents a significant challenge to Iran’s leadership, which is perhaps why the crackdown has been swift—faster than the response to similar protests that began two years ago. Authorities say that 1,000 people have been arrested so far. The death toll reports have prompted the United Nations to urge restraint as well as demand that Iran restore the internet.

What are people protesting? The protests began on Friday in response to a minimum 50 percent rise in the price of gasoline, a subsidized commodity that is still cheaper in Iran than in much of the world. But Iran is also facing an growing economic crisis, and the move ignited simmering anger over growing inequality, corruption, and declining standards of living.

How will Iran’s leaders respond? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has stood by the price hike and blamed the protests on outside forces. On Monday, the government began quickly dispensing direct payments to 60 million citizens—a sign that it is unsettled by the unrest. (The payments were promised as part of a change in government subsidies.) Still, Iran is not likely to reverse the move, and its economy—burdened by heavy U.S. sanctions—isn’t improving.

What We’re Following Today

U.S. Democrats take the stage, again. Today, ten of the many politicians vying to be the 2020 U.S. Democratic candidate for president face another debate, with the pack trimmed since the last one in October. Four contenders—Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg—appear to be the frontrunners. The newest contender to announce his candidacy, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, did not qualify, nor did former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is “actively preparing to enter” the race.

As ever, foreign policy isn’t likely to take center stage but the candidates could be asked again about the Trump administration’s Syria policy or its recent decision to recognize Israeli settlements in the West Bank as legal.

[See the Foreign Policy guide to the candidates’ positions on key issues here.]

Shinzo Abe becomes Japan’s longest-serving PM. Today marks Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2,887th day in office, making him the longest-serving premier in the country’s history. He has vowed to push through reforms to Japan’s pacifist constitution before his current term ends in September 2021. But Abe also faces concerns about the economy and some scandals: Two of his ministers have resigned since September over alleged campaign law violations and Abe himself is now under fire for favoring supporters at a state-funded event.

University siege in Hong Kong nears its end. Fewer than 100 student protesters remain inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University after days battling riot police surrounding the campus, leading hundreds to flee. Authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people in 24 hours. (Since the protests began in June, 5,000 have been arrested in total.) The Polytechnic University campus is the last of five occupied by anti-government protesters across the city. Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to support democracy in Hong Kong, drawing ire from mainland China, which summoned a senior U.S. diplomat and vowed to retaliate if the bill becomes law.

[Hong Kong residents are set to cast ballots in the city’s only fully democratic election this Sunday—a vote for local district councils—but the government could cancel the vote. That would be a mistake, Dominic Chiu argues in FP.] 

For more news and analysis on stories like this, sign up for China Brief, delivered on Wednesdays.

Keep an Eye On

Gordon Sondland’s testimony. Today U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will go before Congress in a public impeachment hearing—highly anticipated because his role in the Trump administration’s alleged pressure campaign on Ukraine alarmed career diplomats. Sondland has already amended his testimony once and he will almost certainly be pressed to answer in detail about an alleged phone call to Trump on an unsecured line that he did not mention in his deposition.

Sondland is at the center of the scandal and could offer legislators crucial information that corroborates the testimony of other witnesses. Unlike many others who have testified, he has not been publicly attacked by Trump, Politico reports; in fact, the president last month took to Twitter to praise him as “a really good man and great American.” But Sondland’s loyalty might be wearing thin. The Guardian notes that “As he weighs his answer, Sondland may try to balance fealty to Trump with the fate that has befallen others in the president’s circle”—prison time.

Protests against Italy’s Salvini. A grassroots movement calling itself “the sardines” is taking on Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini ahead of a regional election early next year. The protests drew 12,000 people in the city of Bologna last week, with more in the coming week. Protesters are worried that Salvini’s League party could win Emilia-Romagna, a leftist stronghold.

Erdogan’s old ally. Turkey’s former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has opposed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more forcefully in recent months, including announcing plans to form a new opposition party. Now the government is shutting down a university he founded, but the move could risk alienating Erdogan’s own supporters, Umar Farooq writes for FP.

Odds and Ends

A giant panda born in the United States four years ago was flown to China on Tuesday, under the terms of the agreement between Washington’s National Zoo and the Chinese government. In two years the panda, Bei Bei, will enter China’s state-run breeding program that aims to expand the world’s vulnerable panda population.

That’s it for today. 

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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