Iran protests show no signs of slowing as anger at ‘morality police’ mounts

Iran on Monday accused the U.S. and Europe of directly fueling the deadly popular uprising that has gripped the Islamic republic over the past 10 days, while the West threatened new economic sanctions on Tehran and called for an immediate end to the “brutality” with which Iranian security forces are treating protesters.

The aging leaders of the theocratic regime have turned back repeated domestic challenges to their four-decade rule, but the persistence of the recent protests — and their quick links to economic and other grievances — could prove the most serious threat to the mullahs’ powers.

The massive demonstrations across Iran, sparked by the death earlier this month of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the country’s Islamist “morality police, have claimed hundreds of lives and led to thousands of arrests, according to anti-regime Iranian dissident organizations. Monday marked the 10th straight day of protests following the death of Amini, who was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in an incident that has struck a nerve across Iranian society and led to a near-unprecedented outcry against the country’s strict version of Islamic law.

It’s the first wave of major protests to hit Iran since hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi took office last year, and the largest since a nationwide uprising in 2019 that was sparked by a massive hike in fuel prices. The Raisi government was already dealing with an economic crisis, a COVID epidemic that hit Iran particularly hard, and the uncertain health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate political and religious authority and only the second cleric to hold the key post after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Iran revolution.

Anti-regime activists say it appears the Iranian government was caught off guard by the speed and intensity of the most recent demonstrations, though it’s not yet clear whether there is any genuine threat to the survival of the Raisi government.

Mr. Raisi has pledged a full investigation into the circumstances behind Amini’s death, which officials claimed was the result of a  pre-existing heart condition issue while in custody — a story that was already widely discredited before photos showing the victim’s apparently battered face were made public.

The protests also are driving an even deeper wedge between Iran and the West even as the two sides negotiate to revive a 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Those talks have been overshadowed in recent days as the U.S. and Europe publicly blast the Iranian government’s handling of the protests. 

Key Iranian officials, meanwhile, claimed Monday that the U.S. and Europe are contributing directly to the demonstrations in an effort to destabilize the country and topple the country’s Islamic government.

“The political leaders of America and Europe, their media, exploited a tragic incident under investigation and with the slogan of supporting the rights of the Iranian nation,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in an Instagram post Monday, according to English-language media reports of his comments. 

“They did all they could to support the riots,” he said. “Attempts to violate Iran’s sovereignty will not go unanswered.” 

In what may have been a related incident, the Associated Press, citing Iranian official news sources, reported that Iranian government forces unleashed a wave of drone and artillery strikes targeting what the government said were bases of Iranian Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq, a semi-official news agency reported. Mahsa Amini was of Iranian Kurdish descent and her death sparked particular anger in Kurdish-dominated lands.

Diplomatic sparring

Diplomatic sparring over who is to blame for the uprisings has ramped up in recent days. On Sunday, Iran summoned the British ambassador to Tehran to protest the British media coverage of the demonstrations. And on Monday, Germany summoned the Iranian ambassador to demand that Tehran stop its crackdown on protesters.

“We call on the Iranian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to not deploy further violence — in particular not fatal violence — against protesters,” the German Foreign Ministry said after the meeting, according to Reuters. “We also communicated that directly to the Iranian ambassador in Berlin today.”

German officials reportedly left open the door to more economic sanctions against Tehran in response to the crackdown on protesters, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman telling reporters “we will consider all options” as the situation unfolds.

The Biden administration on Friday slapped economic sanctions on Iran’s morality police and key officials across numerous Iranian security services and government agencies. The Treasury Department said in a statement that the moves were in direct response to “the recent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested and detained for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly.” The administration also has taken steps to provide increased internet access for Iranian citizens who have seen their ability to communicate curbed amid a nationwide crackdown on social media.

“We are doing what we can to enable the people of Iran to exercise those universal rights,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.

Mr. Price also condemned Iran’s treatment of protesters.

“Iran’s leaders should be listening to the protesters, not firing on them,” he said.

Private rights groups have also been sharply critical of the Iranian crackdown, and the shuttering of popular social media networks to keep demonstrators from coordinating their tactics.

Amnesty International accused the government of a “harrowing pattern” of “deliberate and unlawful firing of live ammunition at protesters.”

“The rising death toll is an alarming indication of just how ruthless the authorities’ assault on human life has been under the darkness of the internet shutdown,” Heba Morayef, the London-based group’s Middle East director, said in a statement.

While there is widespread agreement that security forces have killed demonstrators, the exact death toll remains murky. Citing Iranian state-run TV, the Associated Press reported late Sunday that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the uprisings began Sept. 17.

But other sources say the death toll is much higher. Information circulated Monday by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — an umbrella group for Iranian dissidents who oppose the theocratic regime in Tehran — estimated that 200 people have died so far. Of those, 59 have been identified, the group said.

Citing sources inside Iran affiliated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a leading Iranian opposition outfit, NCRI said that the protests have reached 154 cities. About 10,000 Iranians have been detained so far, the organization said.

For the Raisi regime, the ongoing protests have cast a spotlight on the disconnect between the government in Tehran and the Iranian population, analysts say. That rift has grown deeper after the country’s strict adherence to Islamic law appears to have been directly responsible for the death of Amini.

“Amini’s tragic death is yet another reminder of how the Islamist rulers in Tehran remain tone-deaf to the demands of the Iranian people. Opposition to mandatory wearing of the veil, or hijab, is one in a long list of public grievances,” said Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute. 

“The violence that led to Amini’s death was not accidental,” he wrote in a recent analysis for Foreign Policy magazine. “It is part and parcel of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s attitude toward any political dissent. He continues to believe that violent repression will drive protesters to retreat. But his policy choices are only deepening raw public anger against the Islamic Republic. Not only is Khamenei inciting the Iranian people against the regime, but his insistence on mandatory hijab-wearing is splitting the Islamic clerical class.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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