Iran on Monday alternatively downplayed and demonized 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 U.S. economic sanctions.
The full scale of the protests, which began shortly after a 50% 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 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 $1, compared to 32,000 to $1 at the time the deal took effect.
Tehran’s streets were emptier than usual 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% 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. 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 license 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 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 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of the capital.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was “deeply concerned by reports of several fatalities.”
“The Islamic Republic must cease violence against its own people and should immediately restore the ability of all Iranians to access a free and open Internet,” Pompeo said. “The world is watching.”
The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the Guard, has put the total number of protesters at over 87,000, saying demonstrators ransacked about 100 banks and stores. Authorities arrested about 1,000 people, Fars reported, citing unnamed security officials for the information.
Iran’s information and communications technology minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, told IRNA that officials hope the situation will normalize and allow the internet to be restored. However, the former Intelligence Ministry member told the news agency that “maintaining national security is very important.”
The protests represent a political risk for Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections as the government struggles to keep the economy afloat.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves despite decades of economic woes since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Gasoline in the country remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping 50% to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter. That’s 12 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.59 by comparison.
The protests come as demonstrations also strike Iraq and Lebanon, two nations key to Iran’s regional influence. Iran’s protests also appear leaderless and spontaneous, making it difficult for them to push for a lasting change in Iran, the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy said in an analysis. It said any traditional leadership likely would find itself targeted by security forces amid their crackdown.
“The demonstrators have no way to present organized demands, much less negotiate them with the authorities,” the institute said early Tuesday. “It is difficult to see how such leaderless protests can produce significant political change.”
About 100 protesters remained holed up at a Hong Kong university Tuesday as a police siege of the campus entered its third day.
City leader Carrie Lam said 600 people had left the Hong Kong Polytechnic campus, including 200 who are under 18 years old.
Police have surrounded the university and are arresting anyone who leaves. Lam said those under 18 would not be immediately arrested but could face charges later.
She said that the other 400 who have left have been arrested.
Now in its fifth month, the Hong Kong protest movement has steadily intensified as local and Beijing authorities harden their positions and refuse to make concessions.
Universities have become the latest battleground for the protesters, who used gasoline bombs and bows and arrows in their fight to keep riot police backed by armored cars and water cannon out of two campuses in the past week.
A fishing boat caught fire in South Korea’s southern waters early Tuesday, and the coast guard said a search was underway for 11 people missing.
One fisherman had been found unconscious and not breathing in waters 7.4 kilometers (4.6 miles) south of the boat, and rescue workers were airlifting him to a hospital on the nearby island of Jeju.
The coast guard and navy were deploying boats, helicopters and a patrol plane to search the waters near Jeju island for survivors, said Lee Geun-han, an official from the coast guard in Jeju.
Rescue efforts, which also involved civilian fishing vessels, were being slowed by strong winds and large waves in the area.
Lee said the coast guard received a report about the fire at around 7 a.m. A court guard helicopter found it about an hour later, and the upper side of the boat had been burned completely.
A photo released by the coast guard showed the 29-ton boat engulfed in black smoke.
Six of the boat’s crew were South Koreans and the other six were Vietnamese, Lee said.
They departed from the mainland port of Tongyeong on Nov. 8 to catch hairtail and had planned to return to the port on Monday.
Michelle Obama marked one year since publication of her best-selling memoir at a book signing in the nation’s capital Monday.
“It’s so good to meet you,” the former first lady told patrons as she signed copies of “Becoming” at a Washington, D.C., bookstore.
More than 11.5 million copies of the memoir have been sold worldwide since it was first published in November 2018.
Mrs. Obama then embarked on a rock-star-style tour of more than 30 cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe to promote the book.
Patrons did not seem to mind the hours-long wait outside in the November chill before they were ushered inside the bookstore.
Behind a black curtain, Mrs. Obama sat at a table. The shelves behind her were stacked with copies of “Becoming,” along with an accompanying journal being released Tuesday.
“She looks so much younger than I thought,” one man was overheard saying as he waited in line.
“She looks beautiful,” exclaimed a woman. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh,” gushed another woman in line.
Rosalind Myers, an attorney from Rockville, Maryland, told those still waiting outside as she left the store that “it’s worth the wait.”
Myers said she had missed two previous opportunities to see Mrs. Obama at her book events. But on Monday, Myers was 26th in line.
“She took the time to look me in the eye, to shake my hand,” Myers said. “She’s a beautiful woman inside and out.”
In “Becoming,” Mrs. Obama tells the story of her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, her academic and professional careers as an attorney and health care executive, her marriage to Barack Obama, their daughters Malia and Sasha, the 2008 presidential campaign and the election that made them the first black U.S. president and first lady.
North Korea said Tuesday it won’t consider a recent U.S. decision to postpone a joint military exercise with South Korea a concession that can bring the North back to nuclear talks.
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol said the U.S. must completely scrap that military drill and abandon its hostility against his country if it wants to see the resumption of the nuclear negotiations.
Kim’s comments were the first direct response to an announcement Sunday by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart that the allies have indefinitely postponed the Vigilant Ace training in an “act of goodwill” toward North Korea. The moves were regarded as an effort to convince North Korea to revive the nuclear talks that largely have stalled since the February collapse of a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The U.S. tries to make a good impression as if it contributes to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, describing the suspension (of the aerial drill) as ‘consideration for and concession’ to someone,” Kim Yong Chol said in a statement carried by state media. “But we demand that the U.S. quit the drill or stop it once and for all.”
North Korea wants the United States to lift international sanctions on it, provide security guarantees and make other concessions in return for abandoning its advancing nuclear arsenal. The February summit in Vietnam, the second such meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un, fell apart after Trump rejected Kim’s demand for sweeping sanctions relief in exchange of dismantling his main complex to produce nuclear ingredients, a limited disarmament step.
After Esper’s announcement on the drill, Trump in a tweet urged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “act quickly, get the deal done,” saying “See you soon!”
But senior North Korean Foreign Ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan said Monday his country has no interest in giving Trump further meetings to brag about unless it gets something substantial in return.
In his Tuesday statement, Kim Yong Chol also accused the U.S. of trying to buy time as a North Korea-set deadline for Washington to work out new proposals by year’s end is approaching.
“The U.S. should not dream of the negotiations for denuclearization before dropping its hostile policy toward” North Korea, he said.
Kim Yong Chol is one of Kim Jong Un’s close associates who led nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. and travelled to Washington twice before the failed February summit.