Thursday 17 January 2019

'Iran's enemies' behind unrest: Ayatollah

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke out yesterday. Photo: AP
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke out yesterday. Photo: AP

Raf Sanchez

Iran's leader has accused the US and Saudi Arabia of fomenting protests in the country as government forces struggled to contain increasingly violent and widespread unrest.

In his first public comments since protests began six days ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, blamed the uprising on the "enemies of Iran" and said foreign governments were sending money and weapons to undermine the Islamic republic.

"The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation," he said.

At least 21 people have been killed since Thursday, including a police officer and a revolutionary guardsman, and the violence appeared to be intensifying yesterday as security forces fired on crowds and demonstrators attacked police stations.

Protesters wave flags as they gather outside the Iranian Embassy in central London. Photo: Getty Images
Protesters wave flags as they gather outside the Iranian Embassy in central London. Photo: Getty Images

While Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, initially offered conciliatory words, saying the protesters had legitimate grievances, the government's stance hardened in recent days.

The head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court warned that protesters could face the death penalty if convicted of "moharebeh" - waging war against God - while state television said those arrested after the first 48 hours of demonstrations would be treated more severely. Around 1,000 people had been arrested so far, authorities said.

Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's senior adviser, said the White House was considering new sanctions on Iran in response to its crackdown on the protesters. The sanctions would be likely to target the Revolutionary Guard, the regime's elite forces which also control major business interests.

Nikki Haley, the White House envoy to the United Nations, said the US would convene an emergency UN session on Iran, and dismissed claims of outside influence as "ridiculous".

Ali Shamkhani, one of Iran's top security officials, said the US, Saudi Arabia and Britain were behind the protests and had generated many of the calls on social media for people to take to the streets.

"What is happening in Iran will be over in a few days, and there is no reason to worry at all," he said, according to Iran's Press TV.

While the last major protests in 2009 were largely supported by affluent Tehranis angry over disputed election results, the current wave of unrest is spread across the country.

"There is a growing consensus that the protests are comprised primarily of members of the working class, who are most vulnerable to chronic unemployment and rises in the cost of living," said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse & Bazaar, an Iran-focused website.

Many protesters said they had taken to the streets out of economic frustration and a sense that the economy was not improving even after the 2015 nuclear deal eased sanctions on Iran.

Some of the worst violence took place in areas that few Iranians had ever heard of, including Qahderijan, a town of just 30,000 people, where six demonstrators were reportedly killed as a crowd attacked a police station.

State TV also said an 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, while a member of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard was killed in the town of Najafabad.

The towns are all in Iran's central Isfahan province, some 350km south of Tehran.

President Rouhani has acknowledged the public's anger over the flagging economy, which has benefited from his signature 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, but not in a way that has brought immediate gains for most Iranians.

Mr Rouhani and others have warned that the government wouldn't hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers. None of the protest rallies so far have received prior permission from the Interior Ministry, making them illegal.

The US president wrote on Twitter that "the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime".

"All of the money president Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their 'pockets'," Mr Trump wrote, apparently referring to the nuclear deal reached under his predecessor. "The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!"

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi urged Mr Trump to stop tweeting and focus on his own country's problems. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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