Tehran Threatens Regional States Involved in Iran Protests

On Saturday, November 23, Iran warned countries in its region of retaliation if they were proved to have meddled in provoking the deadly protests that have swept over more than a hundred towns and cities across the country.

Iran’s Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri told Fars News Agency that countries in the region “should know that they will not have an easy life,” if they were found to have “intervened to create unrest in Iran.”

Yet Iranian officials had already accused neighbouring archenemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, of being behind the week-long protests. President Hassan Rouhani previously blamed “reactionary regional regimes, the Zionists and the Americans” for instigating the unrest.

After violently quelling unrest in Kermanshah, in western Iran, Tehran said on Saturday that “US agents” were among the protesters there. Amnesty International said at least 30 people were killed in the province that shares borders with Iraq.

The western province underwent a severe crackdown. “All the forces of the Revolutionary Guards, Basij, the Intelligence Ministry, police and the army took part actively in controlling the situation,” Parviz Tavassolizadeh, the head of the judiciary in Kermanshah, told Fars News Agency.

Tavassolizadeh also claimed that the demonstrators were armed and burned and vandalized public property. The Revolutionary Guards’ commander in Kermanshah, Bahman Reyhani, told Tasnim News Agency that “the rioters belonged to anti-revolutionary groups and America’s intelligence services.”

For their part, protesters said their peaceful movement had been infiltrated by agents charged with burning banks and damaging public property, as many banks and government buildings were set on fire and heavily vandalized in several cities.

Iran’s recent wave of protests was propelled by the government’s announcement of a hike in gasoline prices of at least 50%. Demonstrators first took to the streets on November 15, but analysts say the rise in gasoline prices only added to the decades-long weariness Iranians had cultivated against their authoritarian government.

Tensions among the Iranian youth have particularly flared up in recent years. The country’s currency has long been in decline, whereas costs of living and housing increased amid sweeping unemployment and international economic hardships.

The United States has long sworn to bring Iran’s oil revenues —the country’s lifeblood— to “zero,” as it leads austere sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Many other countries took the same stance against Teheran.

Critics of the Iranian regime said over 200 people were killed in the protests and thousands arrested. But the death toll proved delicate to establish after the Iranian government had shut down the internet for five days during the week of the protests. Amnesty International updated its estimated death toll on Saturday to 115 dead protesters, whereas, it said, over 1000 were detained.

“According to credible reports we have continued to receive, security forces in Iran have unlawfully killed 115 protesters,” Amnesty International declared on Twitter. “We believe the real number is higher and are continuing to investigate,” the tweet went on.

The human rights group also reported that government forces of Iran opened fire from rooftops and helicopters when targeting protesters. Iran rejected Amnesty’s death toll figures as being “speculative,” and said only a handful of protesters succumbed during clashes with security forces.

Video footage and pictures that had made it to social media despite the shutdown, however, showed civilians chased in the streets by anti-protest agents on bikes or sometimes dressed as civilians. Some protesters were heavily battered; in other footage, security forces appeared to open fire from rooftops.

Yet observers said far more of the ruthless crackdown was likely concealed by the government’s days-long blockage of internet across the country. Other reports said the government forces used live ammunition against the protesters.

The Revolutionary Guards were said to have immediately reacted to the protests, alongside the Basij paramilitary, and the internet was promptly shut down.

Virtually cut off from the rest of the world during most of the protests’ week, Iranians said they felt ignored by the international media and audiences. (International journalists were banned from travelling to Iran to cover the protests.)

On Thursday, November 21, Iran’s National Security Council, which had ordered shutting down the internet, approved of reactivating it in some areas, after the Revolutionary Guards said calm had returned across Iran that same day.

NetBlocks, the cybersecurity and internet governance monitoring organization, showed connectivity was back up to 64% of normal levels on Saturday. Iranian state television showed pro-government rallies in several cities that same day. Yet Iranians on social media still actively make use of #IranProtests to share video footage and pictures, saying the unrest was not over.

On Friday, November 22, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s minister of information and telecommunication technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, for his role in stifling information on the protests and the crackdown.

That same Friday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Iranians to “send us their videos, photos and information documenting the regime’s crackdown on protests. The United States will expose and sanction abuses.”

Saying the protesters were linked to foreign forces who had long opposed Iran, Teheran blamed the “thugs” for the unrest, accusing them of having committed a major crime.

Iran’s judiciary said some 100 individuals were arrested nationwide on charges of leading the unrest. Senior cleric Ahmed Khatami said they deserved the “maximum penalty,” echoing a position shared by many others standing for the regime.

Human rights groups and NGOs fear the cleric meant the death penalty. A pro-government newspaper, Kayhan, wrote they should be hanged.