Anti-government protests in Iran flared on more fronts Tuesday amid clashes that left at least nine people dead, state media reported, as leaders in Tehran struggled to respond to the most serious internal crisis in nearly a decade.
Six days of demonstrations — which have left at least 20 people dead — showed no signs of easing as the anger from the streets found new targets. What began as frustration over Iran’s sluggish economy has broadened to include open defiance of Iran’s Islamic leadership itself.
There was no apparent evidence of cracks in Iran’s ruling network of clerics and security networks, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard whose influence extends deep into Iran’s economy and policymaking.
But Iran’s establishment was clearly caught off guard by the speed and ferocity of the protests — the largest outpouring of opposition to the state since disputed 2009 presidential elections.
It also has underscored the range of tensions buffeting Iran, which has one of the region’s most highly developed middle classes and among the most educated and tech-savvy populations.
Many young Iranians are frustrated by limits on reformers, including President Hassan Rouhani, to push for greater social freedoms and political openness in a country where the ruling clerics still hold all the cards. Working-class Iranians and others, meanwhile, are increasingly unhappy with a stagnant economy despite the lifting of international sanctions under the nuclear accord with world powers.
In a replay of the rhetoric from 2009, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, posted comments Tuesday asserted the current protests were encouraged by the country’s “enemies” — often used as shorthand for the United States, its allies and anti-government Iranian exiles.
“In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,” said the statement from Khamenei on his official website.
Khamenei made no comment on how security forces should confront the demonstrations, saying only that he will address the nation “when the time is right.” But other top officials have called for harsher crackdowns. Khamenei’s claim of outside links to the protests suggested that he viewed the events as more than a domestic upheaval and could support much tougher measures.
Also worrisome for Iran’s leaders is the spread of the protests into provincial areas, traditionally conservative strongholds not often drawn into the political activism led by groups in Tehran and other cities.
The latest bloodshed occurred in towns around the central city of Isfahan.
State television said six of the latest casualties occurred during an attack on a police station in Qahdarijan. The clashes were allegedly sparked by protesters who tried to steal guns from the station.
An 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, and a member of the Revolutionary Guard was killed in the town of Najafabad, state television also reported.
A semiofficial news agency reported Tuesday that 450 people have been arrested in Tehran since Saturday. The ILNA news agency cited Ali Asghar Nasserbakht, a security deputy governor of Tehran, in its report.
Nasserbakht told the agency 200 protesters were arrested Saturday, 150 Sunday and 100 were arrested Monday.
No figure has yet been offered for other cities.
The demonstrators appeared to be leaderless and their demands diffuse, ranging from better living conditions to more political freedoms and even an end to the Islamic republic. Their chants and attacks on government buildings broke taboos in a system that brooks little dissent.
The prospect of a harsher response from security forces raised fears of further violence in a country buffeted by conflict elsewhere in the region. Iran has sent cash, weapons and fighters to prop up proxies and allies from Syria to Lebanon and Gaza – and that, too, has become a focus of the protests. The country’s expensive foreign policy adventures were scorned by some demonstrators who chanted, “Leave Syria, think about us!”
Videos circulated online of protesters fleeing tear gas and water cannons, while others confronted police. On Monday, demonstrators again gathered in Tehran, as well as in an array of provincial cities, including Kermanshah in the west and Shiraz in central Iran, according to reports on social media. They chanted “Death to the dictator!” — referring to Khamenei — and called on security forces to join them.
This brought a strong rebuke from the country’s judicial chief. “I demand all prosecutors across the country to get involved,” said Sadegh Larijani, the Associated Press reported. Their “approach should be strong,” he said.
The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court also warned Tuesday that arrested protesters could potentially face death penalty cases when they come to trial, the AP reported.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying: “Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, which is a death penalty offense in Iran.
“When it comes to regime survival, Khamenei calls the shots,” Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the political risk firm Eurasia Group, said in a briefing note Sunday. “And he’s got a lot of loyal and ruthless troops at his disposal.”
The unrest began Thursday in the northern city of Mashhad over price increases and other economic woes. Iran’s economy has been battered by years of U.S. and international sanctions, which isolated the Islamic republic for its nuclear program. Many of those sanctions were lifted as part of a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, but few Iranians have benefited from the relief.
In contrast to the 2009 uprising, which challenged the reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was driven primarily by Tehran’s educated elite, the current protests have occurred throughout the country and in traditional government strongholds.
The pro-reform figures associated with the 2009 revolt, some of whom remain under house arrest, have been noticeably absent from the political scene since the new protests began. Demonstrators have refrained from calling for the release of those figures and some of Iran’s most well-known opposition leaders.
The “protesters have either become more radicalized in their demands and/or simply don’t belong to the generation that experienced the events of 2009 as adults,” Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Iran coverage at the online news portal Al-Monitor, wrote Sunday.
Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal thanks to resumed oil exports — Iran is a major OPEC power — but growth outside the oil sector has sagged.
Inflation is on the rise and unemployment high, at an official rate of 11.7 percent. Youth unemployment is significantly higher, at 24.4 percent, according to the government-run Statistical Center of Iran.
Young Iranians are highly educated and more modern than previous generations, and they have grown frustrated by the political and economic constraints that have kept them from achieving better lifestyles.
“There is a wide and perhaps growing disconnect with political elites,” Shabani wrote.
Then, in recent weeks, proposed price increases for staples such as fuel angered many across the country.
Rouhani, a moderate who has allied with reformists, has appealed for calm, saying that demonstrators have a right to protest and criticize the government, but that they should refrain from violence. In a televised address Sunday, he acknowledged the government’s lack of transparency and endemic corruption, calling on state bodies to allow more “space for criticism.”
Also Monday, President Trump posted on Twitter that Iran “is failing at every level” and that repressed Iranians “are hungry for food & for freedom.”
“Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted,” Trump continued. “TIME FOR CHANGE!”
The protests “are very unlikely to result in a revolutionary tipping point for Iran,” Kupchan wrote. But they “could well recur and will inflict a hit on regime legitimacy.”
“Unrest is admittedly unpredictable,” he continued, adding that “coming days could take unexpected turns.”
The Washington Post’s Brian Murphy contributed to this report from Washington.
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