Iran downplays, demonises protests amid Internet shutdown

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran on Monday alternatively downplayed and demonised ongoing protests across the country that have killed at least five people and renewed pressure on the government as the country struggles under the weight of United States (US) economic sanctions.

The full scale of the protests, which began shortly after a 50 per cent increase in gas prices took effect early Friday, was unknown after Tehran shut down the Internet over the weekend, blocking Iranians from sharing videos and information with the outside world. Before the shutdown late Saturday, some of the protest videos circulating online included sound of gunfire and appeared to show gravely wounded people.

State media and authorities have released little information and a government spokesman predicted during a news conference that the unrest would be over in two days.

But the spokesman, Ali Rabiei, also said demonstrators had taken police officers and security forces hostage. He did not release any details.

The protests were prompted by widespread anger among the Iranian people, who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial, since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions. The rial now trades at over 123,000 to USD1, compared to 32,000 to USD1 at the time the deal took effect.

Scorched public buses remain on the street after protests in Tehran, Iran. PHOTO: AP

Tehran’s streets were emptier than usual on Monday in what is a generally busy capital on a cold and rainy November day. Shops saw few customers as uniformed police and plainclothes security forces walked the streets.

The all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, known as Basij, said it was helping maintain security.

Speaking to journalists, Rabiei said mask-wearing protesters were “exercising very high levels of violence very professionally,” but insisted the protests would soon end.

“Today the situation was calmer – more than 80 per cent compared to yesterday,” the spokesman said. “Only some minor problems remain, and by tomorrow and the day after, there will remain no special riots.”

The head of the Basij, Gen Gholamreza Soleimani, said protest leaders had been arrested, but he did not elaborate.

“The security forces have dealt with the protesters by practicing restraint and patience,” the general said.

“Destruction and disturbances have been done by rioters that we refer to as thugs and hoodlums.”

Iran has sought to blame violence on those linked to Iran’s late shah, ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). The MEK calls for the overthrow of Iran’s government and has the support of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

President Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the hike in gas prices as part of a promise to increase payments to Iran’s poor, warned that authorities could track protesters by their licence plates.

During the unrest, demonstrators abandoned their cars on major highways, blocking traffic.

In a meeting with his Cabinet, Rouhani linked the gas hike to Iran’s inability to export its crude oil abroad, according to a statement on the presidency’s website.

“We have no other choice but to either raise taxes and make payments … or we must export more oil,” he said.

Meanwhile, the official death toll rose to five on Monday as the state-run IRNA news agency reported that the violence has resulted in two more deaths in a Tehran suburb.

Previously, officials acknowledged the death of a police officer in the city of Kermanshah, one killed in another suburb of Tehran and another in Sirjan, a city some 800 kilometres southeast of the capital. In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was “deeply concerned by reports of several fatalities.”