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Hundreds arrested in Iran as government moves against protest

Hassan Rouhani, President, Islamic Republic of Iran, at the United Nations on Sept. 18, 2017 in New York City. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS)

For four days, Iranians nationwide have taken to the streets in a remarkable show of anger, demanding the resignations of the country’s top leaders.

Demonstrators in multiple cities have confronted police and torn down pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani — serious acts of defiance in a theocracy that imposes strict limits on speech.

Hundreds have been arrested, and authorities on Sunday confirmed the first fatalities since the unrest began, with two people shot dead in the western province of Lorestan. A lawmaker said police were responsible but the deputy provincial governor blamed “foreign agents,” part of a government strategy to paint the rallies as an outside plot.

Iran has not had protests this big since 2009, when authorities crushed a popular uprising after a disputed presidential election. Rouhani issued a statement read on state television Sunday night that acknowledged the frustrations, saying, “Criticism and protest are the people’s rights, and they should lead to solutions to the country’s problems.”

As his words aired, rallies continued in several cities.

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Frustration has been simmering for years over high unemployment and rising prices. Rouhani promised that the economy would improve after the 2015 nuclear agreement that eased international sanctions, but many Iranians say they haven’t felt the benefits.

In recent weeks, scattered protests broke out over unpaid wages and bank defaults. A rally began Thursday in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, much the same way as protesters, reportedly egged on by Rouhani’s arch-conservative rivals, railed against his handling of the economy.

But the demonstrators quickly turned against the hard-liners, led by Khamenei, whom many blame for blocking economic reforms while tolerating corruption and funding Shiite Muslim militias abroad.

Protests have taken place in more than 25 cities, including Tehran, the capital, and the holy city of Qom, home to one of the most important shrines in Shiite Islam and long thought to be a bulwark of the ruling mullahs.

Unlike the 2009 post-election protests, which were led by Tehran’s educated middle class, these demonstrations appear to be driven by a more diverse group, including the young and working-class who have been hit especially hard by the economic malaise.

Women are among the demonstrators, including some who removed their headscarves in protest of the theocracy’s dress code.

Aasiyeh Nezaamshahidi, a writer in Mashhad whose son was detained for seven hours by security forces on Saturday, wrote on Facebook: “The poor, jobless and underpaid workers, the lower middle class and women without headscarves were the main corps of (protests) today, yesterday and the day before yesterday.”

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Perhaps most astonishing about these protests is that there is no apparent leader or movement behind them.

The hard-liners who instigated the initial rallies have seen them spiral out of their control, and veterans of the 2009 “Green Movement” uprising are largely on the sidelines, unsure where the unrest is headed.

“This is neither a revolution nor a political movement, but rather an explosion of the Iranian people’s pent-up frustrations over economic and political stagnation,” said Ali Vaez, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The uprising has been hard to categorize, with some demanding the release of political prisoners while others call for the return of the monarchy that ruled Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“Given its lack of leadership, organization and mission, it is likely to wane or will be repressed,” Vaez said. “The government so far has hoped for the former, but the longer the protests go on, the latter becomes likelier.

Iran’s interior minister warned of a crackdown on Sunday and said anyone who creates unrest “should pay the price.” Police and volunteer Basij militiamen were deployed across Tehran, firing water cannons to disperse protesters from at least one busy public square, so far refraining from using heavy force.

The founder of the messaging app Telegram, Russian-born Pavel Durov, said Sunday that Iran was “blocking access” for most Iranians. The app, estimated to be used by half of Iran’s 80 million people, is one of the primary means for protesters to communicate, but the government said it was being used to foment violence.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism and threatened to tear up the nuclear agreement, has posted on Twitter several times in support of the protests. He said Sunday that Iran’s people “are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen.”

But analysts say Trump’s words could backfire, given the intense antipathy with which he is viewed in Iran, one of six mainly Muslim countries whose citizens are included in his U.S. travel ban.

Others point out that the U.S. was quick to cheer on the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, only to watch anti-authoritarian movements in Egypt, Libya and Yemen devolve into chaos.

There has been little official reaction among Iran’s regional rivals, presumably because Arab leaders understand that statements like Trump’s would be used by the Iranian leadership as evidence that unrest is being inspired from abroad.

But the demonstrations have received widespread coverage, especially in Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in deadly proxy wars with Iran in Syria and Yemen.

In an analysis published on the website of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, the satellite network’s former general manager, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, focused on the cost of Iran’s regional military operations.

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©2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.