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2 dead as Iran warns protesters will 'pay the price'

Updated December 31, 2017


An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. —AFP
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. —AFP
Students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems. —AFP
Students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems. —AFP

Iran warned on Sunday that protesters will “pay the price” after a third night of unrest saw mass demonstrations across the country in which two people were killed and dozens arrested.

As videos on social media showed thousands marching across the country, an official in the small western town of Dorud confirmed two people had been killed during protests, but denied security forces had fired on the crowd.

“A number of people took to the streets responding to calls from hostile groups,” Lorestan province deputy governor Habibollah Khojastehpour told state television.

“Unfortunately in these clashes two citizens from Dorud were killed. No bullets were fired by the police, military or security forces towards the people,” he said.

Videos on social media overnight showed demonstrations in Isfahan, Mashhad and many smaller cities but travel restrictions and limited coverage by official media made it difficult to confirm reports.

Semi-official conservative outlets confirmed an evening attack on a town hall in Tehran and showed protesters attacking banks and municipal buildings in other parts of the country.

“Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price,” Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said on state television early on Sunday.

“The spreading of violence, fear and terror will definitely be confronted,” he added.

United States President Donald Trump weighed in, saying “oppressive regimes cannot endure forever”.

In one of the few official reports, an official in Arak, around 300 kilometres southwest of Tehran, said 80 people had been arrested overnight.

“Some intended to enter and damage some government places but the attackers did not manage to achieve their goals... and the town is under control,” the unidentified official told the ILNA news agency.

Social media access restricted

Access to the popular photo sharing and messaging apps Instagram and Telegram was restricted on mobile phones, Iranian media reported on Sunday, after three days of protests in many cities.

Access to Telegram, which the government has accused of being used to foment violence during the protests, was cut in the early afternoon, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency and other media. Telecoms Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi had accused channels on Telegram of being “counter-revolutionary” and encouraging the “use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprising and social unrest”.

“If the counter-revolutionaries want to use this atmosphere to create riots, naturally the Supreme National Security Council will take action,” he told the state broadcaster.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov confirmed the blocking.

“Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down [Sedaie Mardom] and other peacefully protesting channels,” he tweeted, referring to one of the channels criticised by Iran.

Sedaie Mardom was a replacement for Amadnews, one of the biggest opposition Telegram channels with more than 1.3 million followers, which was removed after Jahromi's complaint on Saturday.

Spreading protests

President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, has so far not made any statement since the unrest started in second city Mashhad on Thursday.

The protests began in Mashhad against high living costs and the struggling economy before spreading quickly to other areas and turning against the Islamic regime as a whole.

Slogans such as “Death to the dictator” have been heard throughout the protests.

There have been reminders of the regime's continued support among conservative sections of society, with pro-regime students outnumbering protesters at the University of Tehran on Saturday.

Pre-planned rallies to mark the defeat of a 2009 protest movement also saw thousands of regime supporters out on the streets across the country on Saturday morning.

But the anti-government protests appear to have been driven in large part by poorer sections of society, angry over high unemployment, soaring prices and financial scandals.

“These protests are driven by the lower levels of society who have been hit by major economic problems, particularly losing their money when credit institutions collapsed,” said Payam Parhiz, editor in chief of reformist media network Nazar, which first broke news of the Mashhad protests.

“These economic protests are not something that has started overnight, it's been at least a year since these people lost their money in credit institutions and have been protesting at various places,” he told AFP.

Unemployment is particularly high among young people, who have grown up in a less restrictive environment and are generally considered less deferential to authority.

Since the 2009 protests against a disputed presidential election that gave hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term were ruthlessly put down, many middle-class Iranians have abandoned hope of securing change from the streets.

But low-level strikes and demonstrations have continued, with bus drivers, teachers and factory workers protesting against unpaid wages and poor conditions.