Breaking his silence over nationwide protests that included calls for his ouster, Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday blamed the demonstrations on “enemies of Iran,” saying they were meddling in its internal affairs.
The remarks by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the demonstrations — the largest seen in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election — came after a bloody night that saw protesters try to storm a police station and the first deaths among its security forces. The unrest has killed at least 21 people in the past six days.
The protests began Dec. 28 in Mashhad over the weak economy and a jump in food prices. They have since expanded to cities and towns in nearly every province. Hundreds have been arrested, and a prominent judge warned that some could face the death penalty.
Speaking to black-chador-clad women who were relatives of veterans and war dead, the 78-year-old Khamenei warned of an enemy “waiting for an opportunity, for a crack through which it can infiltrate.”
“Look at the recent days’ incidents,” he said. “All those who are at odds with the Islamic Republic have utilized various means, including money, weapons, politics and (the) intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution.”
Khamenei avoided identifying any foreign countries, although he promised to elaborate in the coming days. Undoubtedly high on his list is the U.S., where President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the protests for several days.
On Tuesday, he wrote that “the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.”
“All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,’” Trump wrote, apparently referring to the nuclear deal reached under his predecessor. “The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
It is unclear what effect Trump’s tweets are having on the protests. Iran’s state TV reported on his tweets in its news broadcasts, and some people have shared them online, but many in Iran distrust him because he has refused to re-certify the 2015 nuclear deal and his travel bans have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi urged Trump to stop tweeting and focus on his own country’s problems.
“It is better for him to try to address the U.S.′ internal issues like the murder of scores killed on a daily basis in the United States during armed clashes and shootings, as well as millions of the homeless and hungry people in the country,” Ghasemi said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
Khamenei, who has final say over all state matters, has blamed foreign adversaries for domestic unrest in the past. In 2009, as Green Movement demonstrations rattled his government, he said the postelection unrest was calculated by Iran’s enemies “whether or not its leaders know.”
But that’s not to say Iran doesn’t face foreign adversaries. Gulf Arab nations have been watching the protests carefully, with Saudi-funded satellite channels in particular playing up the unrest. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long a foe, has praised the protesters.
The protests began over the economy, which has improved since the nuclear deal that saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Western aircraft.
That improvement has not reached the average Iranian, however. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent, which the government has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have sparked the protests.
Analysts suggest the protests starting in Mashhad mean conservatives pushed them forward as a way to challenge President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric whose administration struck the nuclear deal. The apparently leaderless protests, fanned in part by a messaging app called Telegram, then grew beyond their control to include violent confrontations, analysts say.
The government has since shut down access to Telegram and the photo-sharing app Instagram, which now join Facebook and Twitter in being banned.
The Trump administration called on Iran’s government to stop blocking Instagram and other popular social media sites. U.S. Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said Instagram, Telegram and other platforms are “legitimate avenues for communication.”
Early Tuesday, state TV reported rioters tried to break into a police station in the town of Qahdarijan to steal guns, leading to clashes that killed six people. Two more were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, while a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and a police officer were killed in the town of Najafabad, according to local media.
The towns are all in the central province of Isfahan, about 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Tehran.
Rouhani and others have warned that the government wouldn’t hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers. None of the protest rallies so far have received permission from the Interior Ministry, making them illegal.
In Tehran alone, 450 protesters have been arrested in the last three days, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported Tuesday. ILNA quoted Ali Asghar Nasserbakht, a deputy governor of Tehran, as saying security forces arrested 200 protesters on Saturday, 150 on Sunday and 100 on Monday. So far, authorities have not released a nationwide figure for arrests.
The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court also reportedly warned that arrested protesters could potentially face the death penalty when they are put on trial.
“Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying. Moharebeh is punishable by death in Iran.
The US calls on Iran to unblock social media sites amid protests
The Trump administration stepped up its support for protesters in Iran on Tuesday, calling on the government to stop blocking Instagram and other social media sites while encouraging Iranians to use special software to circumvent controls.
Following several days of tweets by President Donald Trump rooting on the protesters and declaring that it’s “time for change,” the State Department took it further, arguing that the United States has an “obligation not to stand by.” Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in charge of public diplomacy, said the U.S. wants Iran’s government to “open these sites” including the photo-sharing platform Instagram and the messaging app Telegram.
“They are legitimate avenues for communication,” Goldstein said. “People in Iran should be able to access those sites.”
Iranians seeking to evade the blocks can use virtual private networks, Goldstein said. Known as VPNs, the services create encrypted data “tunnels” between computers and are used in many countries to access overseas websites blocked by the local government.
Despite the blocks, the United States is working to maintain communication with Iranians in the Farsi language, including through official accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. The State Department also was to distribute videos of top U.S. officials encouraging the protesters through those and other sites.
The U.S. outreach came as the Trump administration, in a departure from President Barack Obama’s approach, was mounting a full-throated show of support for Iranians protesting against the government over concerns about corruption, mismanagement and economic woes.
Iran’s government has blamed the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom for fomenting the protests, calling them the work of foreign “enemies of Iran.”
Goldstein said the U.S. was not only supporting the protesters but encouraging other countries to do the same. The State Department was also dispatching Arabic speakers to appear on Arabic-language television networks to discuss the protests in Iran.
“We want to encourage the protesters to continue to fight for what’s right and to open up Iran,” Goldstein said.
The demonstrations over six days have been largest seen in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election, expanding to several cities. At least 21 people have died and hundreds have been arrested.
On the streets of Tehran, Iranians feel protesters’ pain
As Iranians take to the streets in the biggest demonstrations in nearly a decade, residents of the increasingly tense capital say they sympathize with the protesters’ economic grievances and anger at official corruption.
The Associated Press spoke to Iranians in Tehran on Tuesday, the sixth day of protests that have seen at least 21 people killed and hundreds arrested across the country. The protests, which have erupted in several cities, are the largest since those that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Residents cast nervous looks at the growing street presence of police and Basij, a volunteer force that played a key role in the government crackdown that ended the demonstrations nine years ago. But many residents said the country’s soaring unemployment and rising prices had driven people to the point of desperation.
“If authorities do not fight protesters, then they will have peaceful protests,” said Rahim Guravand, a 34-year-old construction worker.
“I’ve been out of work for months. Who is accountable for this? The government should stop spending money on unnecessary things in Syria, Iraq and other places and allocate it for creating jobs here,” he said, referring to Iran’s support for the Syrian government and regional militant groups.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who was re-elected last year, has expressed sympathy for peaceful protesters worried about how to make ends meet amid high unemployment and 10-percent inflation.
But his support appears to be slipping as many Iranians fail to see any gains from his 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some international sanctions. Iran has made billion-dollar airplane orders and resumed selling its crude oil on the international market, but the benefits have yet to trickle down.
“I voted for Rouhani, but I see his hands are tied and he cannot fulfill his promises,” said Parisa Masoudi, a 23-year-old student at Tehran’s Azad University. “The government should open the political sphere if it intends to keep the people’s support.”
Nasrollah Mohammadi, a mechanic near Tehran’s Enghelab Square, the site of many past protests, said he supports the demonstrators’ demands.
“They are right. Corruption is high and opportunities are given to their own friends,” Mohammadi said, referring to government officials. “I have two sons, 27 and 30, at home without jobs years after graduation.”
In 2009 the protests were largely centered in Tehran, led by middle and upper class supporters of reformist candidates who lost to the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an election best by allegations of fraud.
The latest protests began in Mashhad, the country’s second largest city, and have flared across the provinces, with no clear leadership or political platform beyond anger at the government. Tehran has also seen protests, but the most violent clashes have been elsewhere.
Not everyone in Tehran supports the latest demonstrations. Farnaz Asadi, a 31-year-old who sells goods via the popular messaging app Telegram, expressed anger at the government’s decision to shut down the service after protesters used it to organize rallies and share photos and video. The app is used by an estimated 40 million people a day in Iran — half the country’s population.
“It is not fair. Some protesters went into the streets, but why I should pay the price?” she asked. “The government shut down Telegram and my store was shut down too.”
Another university student, 21-year-old Reza Nezami, described the Telegram shutdown as another promise broken by the government. “Rouhani had said his administration would not restrict social networks,” he said.
For others, the protests represent just another hardship.
“I am not happy. Some protesters broke windows and damaged public property,” said Abbas Ostadi, a 45-year-old electrician. “They burned my friend’s taxi. Who is going to compensate him? How will he take home some bread for his family?”
Full Coverage of Iran’s Protests and Unrest. Iranians are taking to the streets in the biggest demonstrations in nearly a decade. Iran’s supreme leader blamed the demonstrations on “enemies of Iran,” saying they were meddling in its internal affairs.