Protests in Iran stretch into third day despite government warnings
ISTANBUL — Anti-government protests spurred by economic woes hit Iran for a third straight day Saturday, news agencies and social media reports said, in what has quickly emerged as a significant challenge to the administration of President Hassan Rouhani.
Demonstrators protesting price hikes and high unemployment turned out in cities and towns across the country this week, taking aim not only at Rouhani’s economic policies but also targeting the cleric-ruled government, in an extraordinary display of public dissent.
Officials warned Saturday that citizens should stay away from “illegal gatherings.” And the government lashed out at the Trump administration following a Friday night Twitter post by the president in support of the demonstrations, which observers said were the largest since a pro-reform uprising in 2009.
Iran “does not pay attention to the opportunistic claims made by U.S. officials,” state media quoted Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi as saying. He added that Iranians could see through Trump’s “hypocritical support” for the protests.
Trump posted another tweet on Saturday, saying that “the entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change.”
“Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most,” he said.
Videos posted online Saturday showed demonstrators everywhere from the capital, Tehran, to Kermanshah in the west and Isfahan in central Iran. Protesters were seen fleeing volleys of tear gas at Tehran University, while others chanted “Death to the Dictator!” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds absolute authority in the Islamic Republic, but public criticism of him is considered taboo.
Elsewhere, in similar footage that could not be verified, protesters defied police to denounce the government, including calls to resurrect the monarchy overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.
“Things are not working out economically for ordinary Iranians,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, citing what he said were “painful fiscal reforms” by the Rouhani government.
Rouhani, a moderate, was reelected in May. But he has failed to deliver on promises of a revived economy he said would soar as a result of a 2015 nuclear deal. That agreement with world powers curbed Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for major sanctions relief. But unilateral U.S. sanctions and a hostile Trump administration has hindered wider recovery.
“The root causes [of the demonstrations], and the much deeper resentment, goes back decades,” Vatanka said of the protests. “People do not feel this regime represents them.”
Indeed, Iranian state television largely ignored the demonstrations, instead airing footage of pro-government rallies marking the anniversary of the end of the unrest in 2009.
Back then, supporters of reformist presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, challenged the reelection of hard-liner president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sparking mass protests. They were crushed by Iranian security forces, and activists and dissidents were beaten and jailed.
Later Saturday, state television finally acknowledged the anti-government protests, suggesting demonstrators had been manipulated by counterrevolutionary forces into participating in “unlawful gatherings.”
“Counterrevolution groups and foreign media are continuing their organized efforts to misuse the people’s economic and livelihood problems and their legitimate demands to provide an opportunity for unlawful gatherings and possibly chaos,” the Associated Press quoted state TV as saying.
Authorities on Friday said they arrested 50 people in the northern city of Mashhad, where the protests began, but that the detainees had since been released.
It was unclear if more arrests had been made Saturday. It was also unclear if the protests had been organized and, if so, by whom.
The Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, took to Twitter to urge Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov to shut down a channel he accused of aiding the protests.
“A Telegram channel is encouraging hateful conduct, use of molotov cocktails, armed uprising, and social unrest,” Jahromi said. Telegram is widely popular among Iranians and even government officials.
But a video purportedly from Tehran Saturday evening showed demonstrators calling on police to join them. The government did not appear to be unleashing the full power of security forces, even as protests expanded.
“People poured into the streets today because they are tired of the rising cost of living,” a protester in Kermanshah told the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran on Friday. “When we don’t have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything.”
A proposed budget by the Rouhani government released earlier this month envisioned slashes to cash subsidies and an increase in fuel costs, angering ordinary Iranians. And analysts speculated that it had ultimately stirred the protests.
Iran’s economy did grow following the nuclear deal, due largely to renewed oil exports. (Iran has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world).
But the country’s non-oil economy has failed to keep up, slowing broader job creation as prices for basic foodstuffs rise.
The demonstrations “prove that there is widespread discontent in Iran, that it can be triggered at any time,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“These protests also show that . . . Iranians see the regime and its mismanagement as an impediment to their daily lives,” he said.
Others warned about the viability of demonstrations that lack a cohesive strategy or broader political vision.
“Socio-economic discontent [should not] be equated with effective political resistance,” Mohammad al-Shabani, editor of Iran coverage at Al-Monitor, an online news portal, wrote of the protests.
“Without necessary resources. . . change remains a remote prospect,” he wrote.