TEHRAN: Iran said it still faces “riots” even though the situation was calmer Monday after days of violent protests sparked by a shock decision to hike petrol prices in the sanctions-hit country.
Major roads have been blocked, banks torched and shops looted in the nationwide unrest that has left at least two dead — a civilian and a policeman.
Footage of the violence showing masked young men on debris-strewn streets setting buildings ablaze has been aired on state television, which rarely shows any signs of dissent.
The Basij militia, whose commander Brigadier General Gholamreza Soleimani said “America’s plot (had) failed”, reported looting, according to semi-official news agency ISNA.
Demonstrations broke out on Friday after it was announced that the price of petrol would be raised by 50 percent for the first 60 litres and 200 percent for any extra fuel after that each month.
The authorities in the Islamic republic say they have arrested more than 200 people and restricted internet access.
Netblocks, a website that monitors net traffic, tweeted: “40 hours after #Iran implemented a near-total internet shutdown, connectivity to the outside world remains at just 5% of ordinary levels”.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the situation was “calmer” on Monday.
But there were still “some minor issues and tomorrow and the day after we won’t have any issues with regard to riots”, he told a news conference, without elaborating.
“There have been gatherings in some cities, in some provinces,” he said.
Pressed to give figures on the number of casualties in the unrest, he said: “What I can tell you today is that gatherings are about 80 percent less than the previous day.”
The situation on the streets has been unclear largely due to the internet outage that has stemmed the flow of videos shared on social media of protests or associated acts of violence.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.
– ‘Lethal force’ –
The US on Sunday condemned Iran for using “lethal force” against demonstrators.
“The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
Iran’s foreign ministry slammed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he tweeted “the United States is with you” Saturday in response to the demonstrations.
In a statement issued late Sunday, the ministry said it was reacting to Pompeo’s “expression of support… for a group of rioters in some cities of Iran and condemned such support and interventionist remarks”.
“The dignified people of Iran know well that such hypocritical remarks do not carry any honest sympathy,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying.
“The acts of a rioter and saboteur group supported by the likes of (Pompeo) have no congruity with the conduct of the wise Iranian people.”
The statement blasted Washington’s “ill-intent” over its decision to reimpose sanctions on Tehran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal.
“It’s curious that the sympathising is being done with the people who are under the pressure of America’s economic terrorism,” Mousavi said.
– Welfare payments –
For its part, Germany called Monday for dialogue between the government and “legitimate” protesters in Iran.
“It is legitimate and deserving of our respect when people courageously air their economic and political grievances, as is currently happening in Iran,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer.
“The Iranian government should respond to the current protests with a willingness to engage in dialogue,” she added.
Iran announced the decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing at midnight Thursday-Friday, saying the move was aimed at helping the needy with cash handouts.
The plan agreed by a council made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief comes at a sensitive time ahead of February parliamentary elections.
It won support on Sunday from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei blamed “hooligans” for damaging property and said “all the centres of the world’s wickedness against us have cheered” the street protests.
President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday defended the controversial petrol price hike whose proceeds are to be used to make welfare payments to 60 million Iranians.
Rouhani also announced the first payments would be made to 20 million people on Monday evening.
But he also warned that Iran could not allow “insecurity”.
“Protesting is the people’s right, but protesting is different from rioting. We should not allow insecurity in the society,” said Rouhani.
The intelligence ministry said at the weekend that it has identified those behind the unrest and that measures would be taken against them.
Forty people have already been arrested in the central city of Yazd, ISNA reported on Sunday.
Another 180 people were arrested in the past three days in the southern province of Khuzestan, state news agency IRNA said Monday.
Fars news agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said it was unclear when the internet restrictions would be lifted, citing an informed government source.