At pro-gov’t rally after deadly protests over fuel prices, General Hossein Salami threatens to ‘destroy Iran’s enemies’.
Iranian security agents arrested at least eight people linked to the CIA during last week’s deadly unrest over petrol price increases, the official news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday.
“These elements had received CIA-funded training in various countries under the cover of becoming citizen-journalists,” it quoted the intelligence ministry as saying. “Six were arrested while attending the riots and carrying out [CIA] orders and two while trying to … send information abroad.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – in his strongest remarks since the unrest peaked – described the two weeks of violence as the work of a “very dangerous conspiracy”.
“The people foiled a deep, vast and very dangerous conspiracy on which a lot of money was spent for destruction, viciousness and the killing of people,” Khamenei said.
The Iranian leader was speaking at a gathering of the Basij – a militia loyal to the Islamic Republic’s establishment. The Revolutionary Guard’s all-volunteer Basij force helped significantly to put down the demonstrations.
Iran’s government still has not offered any statistics on deaths and injuries in the protests and security crackdown that followed government-set petrol prices rising by 50 percent on November 15.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused the Iranian authorities of “deliberately covering up” the extent of the crackdown.
HRW called on authorities to “immediately announce the number of deaths, arrests, and detentions … and permit an independent inquiry into alleged abuses”.
Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, denounced Iran for having, so far, “refused to provide an accurate death toll and instead threatened detainees with death”.
“Keeping families in the dark about the fate of their loved ones while ratcheting up an atmosphere of fear and retribution is a deliberate government strategy to stifle dissent,” Page said.
Starting November 16, Iran shut down the internet across the country, limiting communications with the outside world. That made determining the scale and longevity of the protests incredibly difficult. While home and office internet has been restored, access on mobile phones remains rare.
On Twitter, Khamenei expressed his “heartfelt gratitude and appreciation” to the Iranian nation in a post alongside pictures of a massive pro-government rally held in Tehran on Monday.
“The people proved again that they are powerful and great, and defeated the big conspiracy of the enemy with their presence on the scene,” it said.
The tweet blamed the unrest on the “#GlobalArrogance and #Zionism” – in reference to Iran’s rivals, the United States and Israel.
Khamenei described the US as seeing the price hikes as an “opportunity” to bring their “troops” to the field, but the “move was destroyed by people”.
Iran did give a glimpse on Wednesday into the scale of what may have been the biggest anti-government protests in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli estimated as many as 200,000 people took part in the demonstrations, higher than previous claims. He said demonstrators damaged more than 50 police stations, as well as 34 ambulances, 731 banks and 70 gas stations in the country.
“We have individuals who were killed by knives, shotguns and fires,” Fazli said, without offering a casualty figure, in remarks published by IRNA.
The violence comes as Iran’s economy has been hit by a tightening US blockade that cut off its oil exports this year, and as mass demonstrations also erupted in Iraq and Lebanon against governments built around prominent pro-Iran factions.
Daily petrol consumption has fallen by about 20 million litres (5.2 million gallons) a day since prices were increased, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. Daily consumption had been about 98 million litres (25.8 million gallons) before the rise.
Washington’s policy of imposing “maximum pressure” has hammered Iran’s oil-reliant economy, which has been struggling to deal with rising inflation, growing unemployment, a slumping rial currency, and state corruption.
The petrol price hike came as Iran’s 80 million people have already seen their savings dwindle and jobs scarce under crushing US sanctions.
President Donald Trump imposed the blockade the aftermath of unilaterally withdrawing the US from Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers.