RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is day six of anti-government protests in Iran, and the death toll there is rising.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Nine more people were killed overnight in clashes between police and security forces. That's according to Iran's state television, which says, so far, more than 20 people have been killed since the protests began last week.
MARTIN: Ali Noorani joins us again. He's an AFP journalist based in Tehran, and he's on Skype this morning.
Ali, thanks for being back with us.
ALI NOORANI: Hi. Thank you.
MARTIN: Things appear to be getting worse. What can you tell us?
NOORANI: Yeah, indeed, things are worse in terms of the death toll and the continuation of these protests. And last night on day four, we had nine more people dying, including one Revolutionary Guard. And earlier, we had another policeman. There was a boy killed the other day. So six of these people had raided a police station in a very small town of 35,000 - population. So I'm afraid these small towns - the protests are continuing, but not in the capital. But it is across the country in a few cities.
MARTIN: How would you characterize the response from the security forces thus far?
NOORANI: I think their response has been more or less the standard response, trying to disperse the protesters with water cannon and tear gas. But at the small towns where there were armed protesters or people - protesters trying to raid police stations or government buildings, there were shots fired. Many of them - the government said that were not fired by the police but by armed protesters. But more or less, they have been trying to practice restraint.
MARTIN: Do you see that changing? I mean, as these continue day by day, do you see the government cracking down harder?
NOORANI: I guess if this continues, yes. The security forces and the government will lose its patience. And as the disorder continues in these small towns, I think the crackdown will become harsher.
MARTIN: When we spoke to you yesterday, you said there was no cohesion to these protests, no leader, no one message. Is that still the case?
NOORANI: Yeah. That's still the case. The closest thing to leadership that we can see is by exile opposition groups on social media, on the Telegram messaging app, which has been blocked by the authorities in the past two days with people using VPNs and proxy software to use it. And that is I guess the worst kind of leadership that these protests could have because there are simply anti-regime. And the kind of response that they can get is crackdown and suppression.
MARTIN: AFP's Ali Noorani talking about the protests in Iran that are increasingly fatal, Iranian state television reporting that at least 20 people have been killed since the protests began. Ali, thanks so much for sharing your reporting this morning.
NOORANI: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And this morning, President Trump is back in our nation's capital.
CHANG: That's right. He returned yesterday after spending the holidays at his private Palm Beach club in Florida where he predicted that 2018 was going to be very special. But the president did not specify in those comments what he was planning to focus on as he gets back to work in Washington.
MARTIN: Lucky for us, NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro has some ideas. And he joins us now.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, there.
MARTIN: Happy New Year, by the way. I haven't talked to you.
MONTANARO: Happy New Year.
MARTIN: So from your reading of this president and this White House, what are the Trump administration's top priorities?
MONTANARO: Well, there are really kind of six areas that this White House says the president's setting his focus right now. Internationally, it's North Korea and Iran. And we just heard about Iran, and we've seen the president tweet support on Iran. And there are four key domestic policy areas - health care, welfare, immigration and infrastructure.
MARTIN: Pretty ambitious.
MARTIN: We suppose, though, the midterm elections are incentive to at least try and get some of these done.
MONTANARO: Yeah. But, you know, in most midterm years, actually, not much gets done, you know? And this is because a lot of the opposition forces. Democrats are unlikely to kind of get - to want to just suddenly pick up and get on board. They're going to need Republicans' 60 votes for almost anything that they decide to do this year. And infrastructure and welfare are expected to be top priorities, but they're easier said than done, especially since everything's likely going to need Democratic support. And the GOP majority, remember, is about to get smaller tomorrow with the swearing in of Doug Jones, the Democrat from Alabama. And Democrats feel like they have some leverage now on things like immigration and infrastructure. And don't expect them to jump at the chance with this - to work with this president.
MARTIN: So I want to switch back to the international stage because, as you mentioned, President Trump tweeted about what's happening in Iran. He is full-throatedly supporting the protesters. And he tweeted that it is, quote, "time for change in Iran." Where's that going to lead?
MONTANARO: Yeah. You know, the president, again, tweeting support for the protesters - Vice President Mike Pence has even brought up the difference between past administrations' postures. But it's still an open question what this White House and this president want to tangibly do or can do to affect change there. You know, in 2009, when President Obama was dealing with this, it was a very different kind of Iranian leadership. You know, remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - much more hard-line than the current leader, Rouhani, who's more pragmatic. So what would change actually bring even if there was a change? President Trump's stance on the uprising is more also in line with kind of an interventionist approach, which is pretty contradictory to the more isolationist America First foreign policy that he keeps touting.
MARTIN: Right. Stay out of other countries' business. Let them manage it.
MONTANARO: Right. So there is this open question now when it comes to the Trump doctrine. When does the U.S. intervene, and when does it not? What's the trigger to say, OK, this is where the U.S. gets involved?
MARTIN: Right. And we still don't know. All right, NPR's Domenico Montanaro for us this morning - Domenico, thanks so much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
MARTIN: All right, Iran was not the only subject of President Trump's tweets yesterday.
CHANG: That's right. His first tweet of 2018 was about Pakistan, and we'll just read it right here. Quote, "the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years. And they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan with little help - no more." Well, now Pakistan is responding.
MARTIN: As you might think they would. OK, NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Islamabad following all this. She joins us this morning.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: How is Pakistan taking this?
HADID: Angrily (laughter).
HADID: Oh, sorry. Last night, Pakistan summoned the U.S. ambassador to complain about the - about Trump's tweet. The defense minister fired off his own tweet accusing the U.S. of giving nothing but, quote, "invective and mistrust." This evening, senior ministers and military officials will hold a national security committee meeting to assess the relationship with the United States. Yeah. And what we modestly expect them to say is that, you know, they're seeking out other foreign allies. And we kind of expect that, they being close to China. And they've been actively courting Russia for a while.
But the thing at the heart of why people here are upset is that Trump described the relationship with Pakistan in dollar terms. And this is an old relationship. Pakistan was an ally on the U.S. war on terror. And so they feel offended by this. I spoke to Mosharraf Zaidi, his - oh, I'm sorry - not Mosharraf Zaidi. Excuse me - to Shahzad Chaudhry. He's a former military official - just to get a sense of what people were thinking.
SHAHZAD CHAUDHRY: The U.S. looks at Pakistan as a transactional nation, not an ally. The Pakistanis have a sense of anger, sense of frustration and sense of disappointment when they look at the U.S. and especially the president of the United States.
MARTIN: But President Trump has a point here. I mean, this is not a new idea. The U.S. government has long maintained that Pakistan shelters terrorist groups. I mean, Osama bin Laden was found there. So, I mean, Donald Trump calling them out for sheltering terrorists shouldn't necessarily have come as a surprise, right?
HADID: No. I mean, the timing for sure was a surprise - January 1, the first tweet of the year. But beyond that, no. We sort of were expecting something like this. But it's that the Trump administration specifically has come to see Pakistan as the reason why it's not, quote, unquote, "winning" in Afghanistan. And that's what's changed. And also the tenor has escalated. And so for that, I spoke to Mosharraf Zaidi, who I previously introduced - he runs a podcast called "How To Pakistan" - to get a sense of why there's so much anger right now in this relationship.
MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: They've used this tool of kind of rhetorical coercion to see if they can scare Pakistan into doing some of the things that the U.S. would like Pakistan to do in Afghanistan.
MARTIN: I mean, but ultimately, Diaa, this is about two allies who need each other, right? Like, they get into these diplomatic kerfuffles, and it's never going to last that long because they both have interests that align, ultimately.
HADID: I mean, this is what's becoming harder and harder to tell. So the U.S. does need Pakistan. It's the chief air and road corridor for military routes, supplies into Afghanistan. Now the question is, is there an alternative?
MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid - thanks so much, Diaa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TUSKEN.'S "BANTHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.