dubai: Iranian counter-protesters gathered across the country on Friday to show support for the authorities after nearly a week of anti-government protests and unrest over the death of a young woman in the custody of vice police.
A few thousand people attended a rally in the capital, Tehran, where they waved Iranian flags, and similar demonstrations took place in other cities. The government claimed that the demonstrations of support were spontaneous. Similar rallies have taken place during recent periods of widespread protests.
Pro-government protesters chanted America and Israel, according to state media, mirroring the official line that foreign countries are fomenting the latest unrest.
State television, meanwhile, suggested the death toll in this week’s unrest could reach 26. Anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in several major cities in the most serious political unrest since 2019, when rights groups say hundreds were killed amid protests against a state-controlled gas price hike.
Iran has also disrupted internet access and tightened restrictions on popular platforms used to hold rallies like Instagram and WhatsApp.
A state television presenter said Thursday night that 26 protesters and police had been killed since protests erupted last Saturday following the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, without specifying how authorities arrived at the figure. He said official statistics would be released later, but that in recent periods of unrest authorities have not provided full accounts of deaths and injuries.
An Associated Press tally, based on state and semi-official media reports, shows at least 11 people were killed. More recently, Qazvin Deputy Governor Abolhasan Kabiri said a citizen and a paramilitary officer were killed in the unrest that rocked two towns in the northwestern province.
The unfolding crisis in Iran began with a wave of public anger over the death of Amini, a young woman who was arrested by vice squads in Tehran last week for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf too loosely. Police said she died of a heart attack and was not abused, but her family questioned that account.
Amini’s death drew strong condemnation from Western countries and the United Nations, and touched a national nerve. Hundreds of Iranians in at least 13 cities, from the capital, Tehran, to Amini’s northwestern Kurdish hometown of Saqez, took to the streets, expressing their pent-up anger at social and political repression. Authorities alleged that unnamed foreign countries and opposition groups were trying to foment unrest.
The death tapped into broader anti-government sentiment in the Islamic Republic and particularly women’s frustration, wrote political risk firm Eurasia Group, noting that Iran’s hardliners have stepped up their crackdown on women’s clothing in the year since former justice chief Ebrahim Raisi became president.
The prospect of leaders offering concessions to Iranian women is minimal, he said. In the cold calculation of the Iranian leadership, the protests have probably gone far enough and a stronger response is needed to quell the unrest.
Videos on social media show protesters in Tehran torching a police car and confronting officers at point-blank range. Elsewhere in the capital, videos show gunshots ringing out as protesters run from riot police, shouting: They’re shooting people! Oh my God, they kill people!
In the northwestern town of Neyshabur, protesters cheered on an overturned police car. Footage from Tehran and Mashhad shows women waving their compulsory headscarf, known as hijab, in the air like flags while chanting “Freedom!”
The scenes of women cutting their hair and burning their hijab fuel a wider political debate about the role of religious restrictions in a modern republic, issues that have plagued the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979.
But the protests have also become an open challenge to the government. The chants were scathing, with some chanting Death to the Dictator! and the mullahs must be gone!
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry warned citizens against participating in illegal street gatherings on Thursday, threatening legal action. Local authorities announced the arrest of dozens of protesters. Hasan Hosseinpour, deputy police chief for the northern province of Gilan, said 211 people were detained on Thursday. The government of the western province of Hamadan said 58 protesters had been arrested.
Tehran University has announced it will move classes online next week amid the unrest, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Amnesty International, a London-based watchdog, accused security forces of beating protesters with batons and firing metal pellets at close range. Videos show police and paramilitaries using live fire, tear gas and water cannons to break up protests.
Iran has grappled with waves of protests in the recent past, mostly over a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by US sanctions related to its nuclear program. In November 2019, the country saw the deadliest violence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as protests erupted over rising petrol prices.
Economic hardship remains a major source of anger today as prices of basic necessities soar and the value of Iran’s currency falls.
The Biden administration and its European allies are working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which Iran limited its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but talks have stalled for months .
The Eurasia Group said the protests make an immediate return to the deal less likely, as the Iranian government will be more hesitant to make concessions in times of domestic turmoil and the US will be reluctant to sign a deal as the Iran violently suppresses dissent. . (