Fri, 13 Dec 2019

Iran's supreme leader has said he supports a government decision to hike gasoline prices, and he criticized protests that have erupted in dozens of Iranian cities.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's November 17 comments followed clashes between protesters and riot police in some places around the country.

Internet access, meanwhile, was reportedly blocked in much of the country, including parts of Tehran, according to an independent NGO that monitors Internet access around the world.

'The U.S. stands with the long-suffering Iranian people as they protest the latest injustice by the corrupt regime in power. We condemn the attempted shutdown of the internet. Let them speak!' State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on November 16 on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo separately tweeted, 'As I said to the people of Iran almost a year and a half ago: The United States is with you.'

The expression of U.S. support for the protesters came as Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told state TV that security forces will move to restore calm if anti-government protesters 'damaged public properties.'

'Security forces have so far shown restraint and have tolerated the protests. But as the calm and security of people is our priority, they will fulfill their duty to restore calm if attacks on public and individuals' properties continue,' the minister said.

Protests began breaking out on November 15 after the government announced it was rationing gasoline purchases and cutting subsidized prices for gasoline.

In the southeastern city of Sirjan, one person was killed on November 16, and unconfirmed reports said four other people had been killed in clashes in other cities, including in Behbahan, Isfahan, and Marivan. There were reports of demonstrations in nearly 50 cities.

Iran, which has huge energy reserves, still has some of the lowest fuel prices, supported by government subsidies.

However, the country struggles to meet its domestic fuel needs because of a lack of refining capacity. International sanctions add to the problem by limiting the supply of spare parts to repair and upgrade refineries.

U.S. President Donald Trump reimposed economic sanctions on Iran earlier this year, accusing Tehran of violating the 2015 nuclear deal and continuing to expand its missile programs.

In his comments on state TV, Khamenei accused unnamed foreign forces of sabotage, and he urged security forces to "implement their tasks," without elaborating.

'Some people are no doubt worried by this decision...but sabotage and arson is done by hooligans not our people. The counterrevolution and Iran's enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so,' Khamenei said.

'Unfortunately some problems were caused, a number of people lost their lives and some centers were destroyed,' he said.

The demonstrations, which were not as widespread as some in the recent past, saw drivers in some cities reportedly blocking roads by turning off their car engines.

The protests could put additional pressure on President Hassan Rohani ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for February.

Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri blamed a 'few disruptors' who oppose the system.

Montazeri also said some protesters were using social media 'to provoke' people, while claiming that the protests were being guided from outside the country.

Iranians on social media reported receiving threatening text messages by the judiciary warning them not to attend protests. The texts called the protests 'illegal' while warning that those attending the rallies could face prosecution.

State TV accused 'hostile media' of trying to exaggerate the size of demonstrations by 'using fake news and videos on social media.'

NetBlocks, an organization that monitors Internet connectivity, on November 17 reported major Internet disruptions across the country. Earlier, the group said the country was 'in the midst of a near-total national Internet shutdown.'

Fuel rationing introduced in 2007 under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to curb consumption led to anger and violence, including the torching of several gas stations. It was halted in 2015.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, AP, and Reuters

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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