Iran imposed an almost complete nationwide internet blackout on Sunday one of its most draconian attempts to cut off Iranians from each other and the rest of the world as widespread anti-government unrest roiled the streets of Tehran and other cities for a third day.
The death toll for the three days of protests rose to at least 12; hundreds were injured; and more than 1,000 people have been arrested, according to semiofficial news agencies like Fars News.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all state matters, called the demonstrators “thugs” and endorsed the government’s decision to raise prices it sets for rationed gasoline by 50% as of Friday and by 300% for gasoline that exceeds ration limits. Even after the price hike, gasoline in Iran is still cheaper than in most of the rest of the world — now the equivalent of about 50 cents a gallon.
In a speech on Sunday, Khamenei said he would support rationing and increasing gas prices because heads of three branches of government — the presidency, judiciary and parliament — had made the decision.
He acknowledged that Iranians had taken to the streets to protest and that some had died. But he blamed the protests on monarchists and opposition groups trying to destabilize Iran.
The widespread discontent on display across the country marked yet another crisis for the Islamic Republic. Iran has been struggling with an economic crisis after the United States exited a nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions that ban Iran’s oil sales.
In the past month, Iran has faced a fierce backlash in regional countries such as Lebanon and Iraq where protesters have called for an end to Iran’s outsized influence in their countries’ affairs. Now, the most powerful forces leading the country are being challenged on the home front.
In the past, Iran has met such widespread protest movements with forceful crackdowns that have crushed dissent.
Khamenei’s support of the gas price hike effectively put an end to parliament’s attempt to challenge the decision, and lawmakers took back a bill they had introduced to reverse the new policy.
But protests raged and criticism continued. At least two lawmakers resigned in opposition to parliament’s not being consulted. In the cities from Tehran to Shiraz in the south, Iranian protesters chanted, “Death to Khamenei.”
Some analysts said Iran could not sustain the pressure from all directions and would have to make some concessions — either to its population or to the United States for new negotiations.
“The regime is facing a serious crisis and unless they concede someplace to relieve the pressures, the anger and the violence will continue,” said Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an independent analyst based in New York.
The Trump administration on Sunday condemned the lethal use of force and the cutting of communications in Iran.
“The U.S. supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” a statement from the White House press secretary said.
Iranian activists on social media called for the United States to figure out a way to provide Iran with internet access. Human rights activists said they worried that without witness documentation of the violence, it would be difficult to hold Iran accountable for its crackdown.
The Associated Press reported that Iran also experienced wide disruptions and outages of internet service on Friday and Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, connectivity had fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels, NetBlocks said.
“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” the group said referring to President Hassan Rouhani. The internet firm Oracle called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
Ahmad, a taxi driver in Tehran who did not want his last name used, said in telephone interview that when he tried to connect to the internet on his mobile phone, a recorded message said that because of a decision by the National Security Council, connectivity had been cut off.
WhatsApp and Instagram, both used widely by Iranians, were also blocked.
Fahimeh, an accountant, said she and her friends relied on WhatsApp to find out the location and time of protests, and in the absence of the internet, it would be difficult for Iranians to plan and spread the word.
The Ministry of Information said Sunday that it had identified bad actors among protesters and warned that those responsible for unrest would be arrested.
Intelligence agents on Sunday arrested Abdoleza Davari, a senior aide to Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a vocal critic of the gas price policy, according to his wife, Elham Salmani. Davari had posted a tweet a day earlier saying that the people have the right to demonstrate and that parliament must hear their concerns and stand up to the branches of the government imposing this policy.
“They have failed to successfully counter freethinking with ideology so the only tool at their disposal is violence,” said Salmani, a journalist and political activist, in a telephone interview. She said the prosecutor’s office had threatened to arrest her as well and had accused her of hiding her husband’s mobile telephone and laptop computer.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist politician, said on Twitter that if elected officials could not listen to the demands of the people, “they should resign and leave the country to its real rulers.”