MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The situation in Iran is leading many people to flee that country. A hike in gas prices last month led to strikes that paralyzed Iran. The government responded with a violent crackdown. NPR's Peter Kenyon met with Iranians who had come to Istanbul and can now speak a bit more freely about the situation at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, Istanbul's Taksim Square was swarming with visitors, including Iranian families happy to be away from the pressures and hardships of life at home. Some agree to speak with a reporter, but only if family names aren't used.
Ali is one of several Iranians I met who says his family isn't just visiting. They're moving here. He says he was back in Tehran last week and found people searching for family and friends missing since the crackdown that Amnesty International says killed more than 200 people. The government disputes the figure but offers none of its own. As his small dog strains at his leash and barks at passersby, Ali says no one thinks officials have the public's welfare in mind.
ALI: (Speaking Farsi).
KENYON: He says, no, they don't care for people's livelihood. All they care about is Hezbollah and spreading Shia Islam in Iraq. They don't care about their own citizens, which forces people to find a way to escape. He says when his wife went to her university to get her transcript in preparation for leaving, they told her 160 people had been in to do the same thing that day alone.
Another Iranian, Mona, says, of course people blame their government for the problems. But although U.S. officials have been vocal in condemning the crackdown recently, Mona says to many in Iran, Washington was slow to react as the crackdown unfolded.
MONA: (Through interpreter) Later, with media pressure on, President Trump finally shared a short tweet, but lack of support from the U.S. made people angry. On social media, you see a lot of comments like, we are alone. We can only count on ourselves.
KENYON: Mahyar, a tall man in a red sweatshirt, says he's constantly hearing from people back in Iran who want to get out as he did.
MAHYAR: (Through interpreter) Everyone - it's not just the middle class - even the rich are without hope now because no investments are coming in. They only answer people with bullets, torture, prison and lies.
KENYON: Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says the government is realizing too late that its overall economic strategy, which largely relies on Europe to keep the economy afloat, won't work in the face of heavy American sanctions. Looking ahead, he says discontent could erupt as Iran prepares for parliamentary elections early next year. Ansari can already see the government moving to tamp down interest in the elections instead of calling for a large turnout as it normally does.
ALI ANSARI: But, of course, to maximize turnout and generate interest risks having crowds on the street, and you don't want crowds on the street if they're not going to behave. This is the problem they have.
KENYON: Back in central Istanbul, I spoke with Navid, who worked in the family tourism business back in Tehran before they all left for Turkey this year. He's 30, and as a young Iranian, he waves away the idea that government leaders might learn from the recent protests, the worst in Iran since the Green Movement of 2009.
NAVID: (Through interpreter) That's misreading the situation. They only see us as thugs who are supported by the U.S. They don't consider us people. From the start of the revolution, their main slogan was, down with the U.S.A., and that's still it. Whatever goes wrong in the country, they blame it on the U.S.
KENYON: Navid says the only lesson the government learns from public demonstrations is how to crush them more effectively. Now he and his family are among the Iranians trying to start over in a new country, trying to build the kind of life they found impossible in Iran.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.