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.”
Hundreds of pages of purported Iranian intelligence documents have come to light that detail Iran’s massive influence in neighboring Iraq, The New York Times and The Intercept reported on Monday.
The unprecedented leak of 700 pages of what appears to be Iranian intelligence cables shows Tehran’s efforts to embed itself in Iraq and co-opt the country’s leaders, including paying Iraqi agents working for the United States to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life, the news organizations said in a joint article.
The report named former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi as an official who was willing to have a relationship with Iranian intelligence and detailed a January 2015 meeting with an operative. Abadi denied the meeting took place in a statement Monday.
“We categorically deny the occurrence of such a meeting,” said a statement from Abadi’s office, adding that such a meeting does not exist in the former prime minister’s schedule.
The cables, written mainly in 2014-2015 at the height of the war against the Islamic State group after it seized large swathes of Iraq and neighboring Syria, show heavy interference by Tehran to keep Baghdad a pliant client state.
“We received these documents, we didn’t know who they were from, we still don’t know who they’re from,” says Vanessa Gezari, National Security Editor at The Intercept, which received the documents and shared them with the NYT.
Monday’s article about the documents comes amid growing anti-Iran sentiment expressed by Iraqi anti-government protesters who have been revolting in the streets since Oct. 1.
The protests in Iraq have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.
The leak also comes at a time of widespread anti-government protests in Iran itself after the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices by 50%.
There was no immediate comment from Iraqi or Iranian officials.
In Iraq’s Tahrir Square, a protester said the article was being translated for protesters by English-speaking volunteers.
“Most of us were not surprised by what we read in the report. It was just a confirmation of our case and the information we already had,” one protester said, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on Monday reappointed Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah as prime minister, the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported.
The emir tasked Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah to nominate members of the new cabinet, KUNA said.
Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah submitted the resignation of his government to the emir on Nov 14. The emir accepted the resignation and ordered the cabinet to serve as a caretaker one until a new government would be formed.
The resignation was submitted by the prime minister to "rearrange the government tasks," Tareq Al-Mizrem, official spokesman of the government, said in a statement.
Kuwait experiences frequent cabinet reshuffles, with the latest cabinet formed less than two years ago.
Young men chanting the "people want to bring down the regime" gathered outside the office of Lebanese legislator Mohammed Raad, the powerful head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc. One shirtless man grabbed a metal rod and swung it at the sign bearing Raad’s name, knocking it out of place as others cheered.
It was a rare scene in the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold. The protests engulfing Lebanon have united many across sectarian lines and shattered taboos, with some taking aim at leaders from their own sects, illustrating a new, unfamiliar challenge posed to the militant group.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah built a reputation among supporters as a champion of the poor and a defender of Lebanon against Israel's much more powerful military. It and its Shiite ally, the Amal party, have enjoyed overwhelming backing among the Shiite community since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, making them a political powerhouse that, along with allies, has dominated recent governments.
But now many protesters group Hezbollah into the ruling class they are revolting against, blaming it for wrecking the economy with years of corruption and mismanagement.
Protesters want that entire political elite out. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Amal’s chief, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have not been spared.
"All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them," protesters have chanted at some Beirut rallies. The demonstrations that erupted Oct. 17 spread throughout the country, including predominantly Shiite areas in the south and the eastern Bekaa Valley.
“The heavy participation of the Shiites ... posed a main challenge: that there's a large number from the sect that doesn’t accept the current situation,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “That's why there was a swift and decisive decision to nip this in the bud.”
In several instances, men suspected of being Hezbollah and Amal supporters beat up protesters and destroyed their tents. Some of those who had criticized Nasrallah and Berri on social media appeared in videos, after apparently being beaten, to apologize for what they did.
Amal denied any link to those behind the beatings, saying in a statement that they should be arrested and that they violated the movement’s belief in freedom of opinion.
Hezbollah has survived many threats over the past years, including charges by a U.N.-backed tribunal for the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 — an accusation Hezbollah strongly denies — a ruinous war with Israel in 2006 and the war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back President Bashar Assad, losing an estimated 2,000 men.
But now Hezbollah is being “attacked by the very constituency they purport to speak for,” Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group said.
Hezbollah is “on the defensive for having become part or the ruling elite, which is clearly a disconcerting experience for the leadership,” he said, though he noted anger is far stronger at Amal, whose leader Berri has been directly entrenched in politics for decades.
Hassan, a protester from the southern city of Tyre, said he supports Hezbollah’s “resistance” against Israel, calling it a “red line” that must not be undermined. But its other policies are a different story.
"The party ... has been silent about the symbols of corruption with the logic that we don't want a civil war, but these policies have hurt the south," he said, asking to be identified by one name, citing security reasons.
Protesters in Nabatiyeh have joined those elsewhere in the country in banging pots and pans in protest; some cried “Against poverty and against hunger, the people are all in pain,” according to videos posted online.
An activist from Nabatiyeh, who asked to be identified only as Abdel-Jaleel, distanced protesters from those who attacked the Hezbollah lawmaker’s office in the town, whom he called “troublemakers.” But he said the demand for change — despite support for the “resistance” — was real among a new generation growing up to find little jobs or hope.
Hezbollah has sought to show it’s sensitive to the complaints. Last week, Nasrallah said in a speech that authorities investigating corruption should start with looking at Hezbollah members. "Begin with us," he said.
Hezbollah’s popularity has also stemmed from a vast array of services, through education, health and social networks. It says it’s still able to maintain that network despite intensified sanctions by Washington, which designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Wimmen, like other observers, says Hezbollah is strong enough to survive because its base is largely cohesive and “the resistance narrative still works.”
But it can’t ignore the alienation over economic woes, he said, and it is “short on solutions.”
Nasrallah has tried to walk a fine line. In speeches, he expressed sympathy for protesters’ demands but also accused foreign powers of exploiting them to undermine his group and warned against dragging the country into civil war. Some of the Shiites who initially joined demonstrations have stayed away after the speeches.
Hardcore Hezbollah supporters and some officials contend that the U.S., some Arab Gulf states and other rival nations are trying to take advantage of the protests to undermine the group.
Senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Ali Daamoush said the group differentiates between protesters’ legitimate demands and those with agendas who “want to take advantage of the protests to achieve political goals that are not in Lebanon's interest."
Hezbollah’s core supporters will stick by it, but the group risks “potentially losing the Shiite community's absolute representation,” said Joe Macaron of the Arab Center Washington DC.
On a recent day when the AP visited Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold of Dahiyeh — accompanied by a Hezbollah guide — there was no sign of the turmoil and paralysis gripping the rest of the country. Streets teemed with cars, a man in a uniform picked up trash as men and women, some in overflowing black abayas, others in jeans, passed by.
But there is sympathy for some of the protesters’ complaints.
"There are legislators who are stealing, there are officials who are stealing. People will rise against you," one resident, Ali Sharafeddine said, even as he expressed respect for Nasrallah and Berri.
Mohamed Harb said he understood all too well the economic hardships driving protesters. Everything has become expensive, he said. Working at a hospital, he recently took a second job selling vegetables and still struggles to make ends meet.
But he remains unequivocal in his support for Hezbollah and Nasrallah.
"Hezbollah means everything to me," he said. Of Nasrallah “tells us to go die, we go die.”
Security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at anti-government protesters in a central Baghdad square Friday, killing three people, in bloody confrontations that continued despite an influential Shiite leader’s call for calm.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emphasized support for the demonstrators in his weekly religious sermon, saying none of their demands have been met so far and that electoral reform should be a priority. He called for a new election law that would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring “new faces” to power.
At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands outraged by what they said was widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the country’s oil wealth.
Renewed clashes broke out in Khilani square Friday afternoon. Soldiers and riot police began firing live rounds and tear gas at hundreds of protesters who removed concrete barriers and streamed into the square. Iraqi security and medical officials said three protesters were killed and at least 25 others wounded.
Friday’s deaths brought to four the number of protesters killed in the past 24 hours in the square, which has been at the center of confrontations for days.
Demonstrations have mostly been taking place in Baghdad’s Tahrir and Khilani squares and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces, following tough measures by Iraqi security forces to clamp down on protests.
The powerful cleric, who’s opinion holds major sway over Iraqis, said a fair electoral law should give voters the ability to replace current political leaders with “new faces.”
“Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless,” he said in his weekly sermon Friday.
“If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken,” al-Sistani said. “What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful,” he warned.
He said corruption among the ruling elite has reached “unbearable limits” while large segments of the population are finding it increasingly impossible to have their basic needs met.
“People did not go out to demonstrations calling for reform in this unprecedented way, and do not continue to do so despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it requires, except because they found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts,” he said.
On Monday, al-Sistani said he backed a roadmap by the U.N. mission in Iraq aimed at meeting the demands of the protesters, but expressed concern that political parties were not serious about carrying out the proposed reforms.