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Iran Protests Enter Second Week As Diplomatic Battle Heats Up

Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran on December 30
Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran on December 30

Antigovernment protests entered a second week across Iran amid a war of words between the United States and Tehran, which accuses the White House of meddling in its domestic affairs.

With the government blocking social media websites to disrupt the spread of information about the protests, January 4 saw fewer reports of demonstrations overnight compared with the previous six days.

However, it was unclear whether the intensity of the uprising on the streets was easing.

The antigovernment protests, in which at least 22 people have been killed and more than 1,000 were reportedly arrested, are the strongest challenge to Iran’s leadership in almost a decade.

Videos from Tehran, Kazerun, Malayer, Nowshahr, and other cities appeared to show rallies against the country’s leadership, though RFE/RL could not independently verify the date and authenticity of the reports.

The protests, which began over economic hardships suffered by Iran’s young and working class, have evolved into an uprising against the powers and privileges of a remote elite, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi urged her countrymen to press on with the nationwide protests in an interview published on January 4 by the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

"If the government has not listened to you for 38 years, your role has come to ignore what the government says to you now," the newspaper quoted the London-based human rights lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner as saying.

Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International called on Iranian authorities to investigate reports that security forces have "unlawfully" used firearms against unarmed protesters and to protect hundreds of detainees from torture and other ill-treatment.

“Reports of the use of firearms against unarmed protesters by security forces are deeply troubling and would contravene Iran’s human rights obligations under international law,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on January 4.

“The Iranian government must promptly launch an effective and independent investigation into the killings and other reports of excessive or unnecessary force, and bring all those responsible for human rights violations to justice,” he added.

The protests have set off a diplomatic battle, with Iran accusing the U.S. government of stepping up "its acts of intervention in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs under the pretext of providing support for sporadic protests."

In a letter to the United Nations Security Council late on January 3, Tehran's ambassador to the UN, Gholamali Khoshroo, charged that the United States had violated international law and the principles of the UN charter, and urged countries to condemn Washington's statements.

"The president and vice president of the United States, in their numerous absurd tweets, incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts," Khoshroo said in the letter addressed to the Security Council and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

"The U.S. Department of State went so far as admitting that the U.S. government wants to encourage protesters in Iran to change their government, admitting that the U.S. is engaged in interfering with the internal affairs of Iran through Facebook and Twitter," he wrote.

The letter was released after Trump pledged to help Iranians "take back" their government and the White House weighed imposing sanctions on those involved in the crackdown against demonstrators.

Trump has issued Twitter statements several times in support of the protesters, including a tweet on January 3 that said he respected “the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government.”

“You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!" Trump wrote in the post.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence backed up Trump's tweets, telling Iranians that they should view the United States as a "natural ally" in their quest for freedom and democracy.

"My goal…really my prayer, is that the people of Iran -- a youthful population, a well-educated population -- understand that the United States of America, the people of this country, are their natural ally. We want to see them achieve a free and democratic future. We want to see them step away from a regime that continues to menace the world," he was quoted as saying in a January 3 interview with Voice of America.

The United States has also sought a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the Iranian protests and possibly consider imposing new sanctions on Iran.

"We want to help amplify the voices of the Iranian people," U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in calling for UN action.

The UN council has yet to decide on the U.S. request for a special meeting on the protests, but the Russian Foreign Ministry called the U.S. proposal for an extraordinary session "harmful and destructive."

China, among other countries, is also expected to oppose taking action on Iran, diplomats said.

U.S. media, citing Trump administration officials, reported on January 3 that the United States is considering imposing new sanctions on Iran over the crackdown.

Russia jumped further into the fray on January 4, accusing the United States of deliberately using the situation in Iran to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

"The current situation, when Washington yields to temptation to take advantage of the moment to bring up new questions with regard to the [agreement], testifies to a deliberate attempt to undermine the global community's commitment to the [agreement]," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by TASS.

"That does no credit to our American counterparts," he added.

The White House has strongly criticized the agreement that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in return for a lifting of most international sanctions. In an October speech, Trump declined to certify that Tehran is complying with the accord and warned that the United States might ultimately withdraw from the agreement.

The antigovernment protests, which started in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, began with crowds in cities across Iran airing grievances over the rising cost of food and other necessities, but quickly spread to expressions of anger against the government.

Early on January 3, Tehran organized a massive counterdemonstration with thousands of people pouring into the streets to voice their support for the government.

Thousands rallied again on January 4 in support of the government in various towns and cities, including in Mashhad.

While many of the antigovernment protesters had voiced opposition to Khamenei, with some chanting "Death to the dictator," the counterdemonstrators chanted their support for the supreme leader, saying, “The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader” and “We will not leave our leader alone.”

Iran's army chief said on January 4 that while police forces had mostly quelled the unrest, troops remained ready to intervene if needed,

"Although this blind sedition was so small that a portion of the police force was able to nip it in the bud ... you can rest assured that your comrades in the Islamic Republic's army would be ready to confront the dupes of the Great Satan (United States)," Major General Abdolrahim Musavi said.

While the country’s oil sector has been boosted by a nuclear deal with the West that lifted international sanctions, most ordinary Iranians haven't seen their situation improve because other parts of the economy continue to stagnate.

Inflation and unemployment, especially among younger Iranians, are on the rise.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and Press TV

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