Iran Gripped by Protests and Internet Shutdown

Week of November 18th, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Protests Met with Crackdown, Internet Shutdown

On Thursday, November 14th, the Iranian government abruptly announced that the price of gasoline would be increased. As detailed in last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered, the price of heavily subsidized gasoline was increased by 50 percent (to 1500 tomans per liter). This price holds for a consumption of 60 liters per month. Beyond that, a higher rate of 3,000 tomans per liter applies (an increase of three times from the previous rate).

Protests over the gas rate hike started on Friday and gained force on Saturday. These were reported to be in Tabriz, Ahvaz, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Sanandaj initially and soon spread to tens of other cities.

While the trigger was broad opposition to the gas price hike, many of the protests quickly expressed broader political and anti-government grievances. On November 17th, BBC Persian reported that the protests had reached “100 cities,” while the semi official Fars News said that roughly 1,000 people had been arrested.

The protests were marked by violent confrontations between security forces and protestors. Footage posted on social media showed live ammunition being fired directly at protestors, riot police beating people, and many Iranians shot and/or killed. 

On Saturday, November 16th, the Iranian government shutdown the country’s access to the internet. The severity and length of the shutdown is unprecedented, having shuttered most internet connections and only beginning to be slowly lifted as of the time of this writing (November 21st).

Many human rights activists and groups say the shutdown is aimed at further repressing protestors and preventing them from communicating with each other and the outside world. As per BBC Persian, government officials claimed the shutdown was aimed at preventing “rioters” from “taking advantage until calm is restored.”

On November 19, Amnesty International stated “at least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed, according to credible reports.” On November 21st, BBC Persian reported that “tens of activists had been arrested in different cities.” Fars News had earlier reported that over 1,000 had been arrested in the first few days of the protests.

According to a student group’s Telegram channel, “40-50” student activists were arrested at Tehran University and its surrounding area. Reportedly, plainclothes security forces entered the campus using ambulances.

BBC Persian also reported on the widespread destruction of public and private property in the protests. Infrastructure that was destroyed or damaged included: 63 banks in Isfahan, 44 banks in Khoramabad, 300 banks in Tehran, 180 gas stations, 32 ambulances, 5 emergency centers, and 150 billion tomans in damages to shops.

Iranian officials also refrained from commenting specifically on when the internet shutdown would end. Most simply stated the internet would return gradually in areas where “calm” had returned. َAli Rabiee, the Rouhani administration’s spokesperson, stated in this regard: “When there is confidence that no one will take advantage, the internet of the provinces will be restored.” 

In parliament, conservative and moderate MPs had different takes on the internet shutdown. Conservative MP Hossein Norouzi, the spokesperson for parliament’s legal commission, said the opportunity had arisen to switch to the “domestic internet.” 

Norouzi stated: “Disconnecting the internet is partial and temporary, but if it is not resolved, this is the best opportunity to switch to the domestic internet … the communications minister must strive to activate the domestic internet and the [Rouhani] administration must more quickly connect the domestic internet and its servers.” 

However, another conservative MP Ali Motahari threatened impeaching the interior minister if the internet shutdown didn’t end. He added: “The responsibility for this is with the Interior Minister given his role as the head of the Council for the country’s security. If the Interior Minister insists that the internet shutdown should continue, the parliament will react … and we might impeach the interior minister.” 

Telecommunications Minister Azari Jahromi also pushed back on the idea that a domestic internet would replace access to the global internet. He stated: “For some to believe that activating national information networks is the same [and aimed at replacing] as ending connection to global networks, this is wrong. It goes against the decisions of the Supreme Cyber Council and rational principles.”

Jahromi added: “No one thinks that we should deny ourselves the available information on global internet networks.” 

Jahromi also said regarding when internet access would be restored: I don’t have a timeline, but the hope exists that as quickly as possible problems are resolved and in my opinion one hundred percent the internet will be connected soon.”

On November 22nd, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Azari Jahromi for “an alleged role in internet censorship in the wake of antiregime protests in the country,” as per the Wall Street Journal

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Domestic Political Feuding Over Gas Price Hike

The decision to increase the price of gas was made by the “Supreme Economic Coordination Council.” This body includes the heads of the three branches of the Iranian government (President Hassan Rouhani, Parliamentary Speaker Hassan Rouhani, and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi) as well as other senior officials from each branch and the head of the central bank.

Initially, the gas price hike was ardently opposed by many politicians, especially Rouhani’s conservative rivals. Many reformist and moderate figures and politicians also criticized the price hike.

After the price hike was announced, both reformist and conservative members of parliament said they would introduce bills to rescind the decision. Many parliamentarians strongly denounced the fact that they weren’t consulted on the price hike decision. This included reformist MP Parvaneh Salahshouri, who lamented that parliament was powerless and no longer emblematic of a democracy.

However, on November 17th, Ayatollah Khamenei publicly supported the gas price hike decision. Khamenei said that he supported decisions made by the Supreme Economic Coordination Council, derided the “vandalism” of the protests, and said the protestors weren’t ordinary people but “thugs.” 

After Khamenei’s support, parliamentarians withdrew their bills to rescind the gas price hike. Two parliamentarians, including prominent Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, subsequently submitted resignation letters to the parliament’s governing board. 

However, many hardline MPs and political figures continued to scapegoat Rouhani for the gas price hike decision. In parliament, hardline MP Mojtaba Zonnour, who holds the influential position of chair of the parliament’s foreign policy and national security commission, introduced impeachment bills against Rouhani and centrist parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

The impeachment bill reportedly received over 60 signatures in parliament, mostly from members of the far-right Jebhe Paydari faction. The reasons they cited for impeaching Rouhani included his alleged, “divisive rhetoric,” and “not implementing the policy of a resistance economy.”

Zonnour himself has compared Rouhani to Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president after the 1979 revolution who was later ousted as a “traitor.” Zonnour has added: “My duty is to bring down the president who has hurt the people so much economically.”

Despite Khamenei’s support of the gas price hike, conservative Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi also said the decision was a “suggestion” of Rouhani administration. He added that it was approved “based on legal assignments and to create coordination among the economic coordination council.”

Former MP Ahmad Tavakoli also said Khamenei did not support how the price hike decision was executed by President Rouhani. Khamenei reportedly believed that the cash transfers should have simultaneously been deposited into the accounts of Iranians with the announcement of the price hike, not weeks later.

The influential cleric Ayatollah Jannati, who is the chair of the Assembly of Experts and secretary of the Guardian Council, also criticized the Rouhani administration. He proclaimed: “For such an important surgery, officials should have prepared the public opinion from long ago. They should have talked about depositing support package (cash transfers) to the people which is to their benefit. And of the harms of cheap gas like widespread smuggling.”

Jannati added: “All those who protested and came to the streets were not rioters and the concerns of the people must be understood. Right now, there is a high cost of living and if this plan is going to impose new pressure on the lower income cases, it is not wise.”

Some hardline MPs, such as Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh from Mashhad, accused the Rouhani administration of acting outside the law with the gas price hike. He stated: “The legal formalities of increasing the price of gasoline were not within the framework of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council, and the administration took this action based on its only legal authorities.” 

An outspoken former hardline MP Hamid Rasai also directly accused Rouhani of causing “the riots.” Another hardliner who often appears in Iranian media, Mohammad Sadegh Koshki, who teaches at the University of Tehran, said in a tweet that “Rouhani’s aim in making gasoline more expensive is to invite people to riot!”

Notably, when the price hike was first announced, social media channels affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards promoted people abandoning their cars in traffic, which later happened in some cities. This led some to speculate that hardline forces sought to trigger and use protests to weaken their moderate and reformist rivals.

Former IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, an avowed critic of Rouhani, also accused him of “playing into the enemy’s hands” with his actions. He added: “The administration with its imprudent and wrong approach made people protest and gives rioters an opportunity to take advantage.” 

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Rouhani Addresses Protests

On November 20th, President Rouhani declared Iran “passed another historic test.” He said: “Despite economic problems and grievances about the management of the country, the people didn’t let water go into the enemy’s mills (an Iranian expression, i.e. “not playing into the enemy’s hands”).”

Rouhani said the “rioters” were “organized and coordinated.” He stated: “It was clear what people came to the streets and rioters were only a small number of them. However, they were organized, coordinated, and armed, which was totally pre-planned by the reactionary regional countries, Israel, and the Americans.”

Rouhani went on to say that “we must always listen to the people’s criticisms and opinions.” He added: “Today the Iranian people put a test of them successfully in the past … now is the turn of officials from the government and ministries to serve and make greater efforts to support the people and reduce the problems in their lives.”

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Khamenei Says U.S. Sanctions Will Remain for Years

Ayatollah Khamenei declared to a group of businesspeople and economic actors that it was wrong to think U.S. sanctions would end in “one or two years.” He stated: “Given what we know of the frontline against arrogance, the sanctions will be around for now. So, to save the country’s economy we shouldn’t wait for sanctions to end or the presence or lack of presence of some person or the action of some country.” 

In the speech, Khamenei called for dependency on oil exports to be eliminated from Iran’s budget and for domestic industrial production to increase. He also criticized Iranian officials who “are waiting for the path to open to take the direction of the country’s economy to the outside world.” 

He said this view was “mistaken” and added: “The policies of depending on domestic capabilities must be so strong and durable so that even if sanctions are removed, these policies aren’t hurt.”

Khamenei also said regarding the gas price hike protests: “The Iranian people have pushed the enemy back in the military, political, and security war. By God’s will, in the economic war the enemy will also be decisively pushed back.”

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Environmentalists Handed Prison Sentences

Six environmentalist activists arrested in January 2018 and accused of espionage have been sentenced to prison. Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jokar to eight years imprisonment, and Amirhossein Khalegi and Sepideh Kashani to six years imprisonment.

The sentences of Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh as still unknown as of the time of this writing. As detailed in past issues of Iran Unfiltered, the eight environmentalists were working for the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation (PHWF) and arrested together with PHWF’s chairman, Kavous Seyed-Emami, in January 2018.

Two weeks after their arrest, authorities announced Seyed-Emami committed suicide while in custody. However, the family of Seyed-Emami rejected that suspicious narrative, with Seyed-Emami’s son stating: “There are so many inaccuracies in the official story, from the day that he died to how he died, that these contradictions just added more to our suspicions about what actually went down.” 

Judiciary Spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said the verdicts were issued by Revolutionary Court Branch 15 and could be appealed. Previously, Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, and Houman Jokar were accused of “sowing corruption on earth,” a capital offense in Iran. This charge was later dropped.

The case of the imprisoned environmentalists has been controversial even among different government agencies. Rouhani administration officials and the Intelligence Ministry have dismissed the espionage charges, while the IRGC’s Intelligence Agency has maintained them. 

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Khamenei Discusses Israel and Antisemitism

Ayatollah Khamenei declared that “we are not anti-Semitic.” He stated: “We support Palestine and the independence and liberation of it. Eliminating Israel doesn’t mean eliminating Jewish people. We have nothing against Jewish people, and in our country, there is a community of Jews that live in total security.”

Khamenei added: “The elimination of Israel means the destruction of the Imposed Zionist regime.”

Khamenei was speaking at an “Islamic Unity” conference in Tehran to an audience of delegates from other countries. He further said that the reason for the “regretful” condition of Palestine was the “weakness of unity” among Islamic countries. He added that the situation of Palestine was the “biggest disaster facing the Islamic world.”

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