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3 security personnel killed in Iran amid wave of unrest

By ERIN CUNNINGHAM | The Washington Post | Published: November 19, 2019

ISTANBUL — Three members of Iran’s security forces were killed overnight in clashes with protesters near Tehran in the latest sign of ongoing unrest despite a nationwide Internet blackout and heavy police crackdown.

Two members of the Basij paramilitary force and a commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps were stabbed to death in districts near the capital, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported. The casualties brought the official death toll to five in four days of protests over a government decision to hike the price of fuel.

The United Nations on Tuesday condemned the use live ammunition, citing reports of dozens of demonstrators killed. State media published images of burned-out buildings, charred vehicles and shattered storefronts in cities such as Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and the capital, Tehran.

A blanket restriction on Internet access since Sunday has stymied the ability of protesters to share images and information on social media. The civil society group NetBlocks, which monitors Internet access worldwide, said Tuesday that some of Iran’s last remaining networks were being cut and that “connectivity to the outside world has fallen further to 4% of normal levels.”

A government spokesman Tuesday said that the Internet would be restored gradually across the country once protests had subsided.

“Many businesses, banks and other professions that depend on the Internet have faced problems. We are trying to solve this,” Ali Rabiei said, the ISNA news agency reported.

“But the bigger concern in the current situation is maintaining peace and stability in the country,” he said.

Residents reached by telephone in Tehran described alternate scenes of chaos and calm on Monday as protesters emerged spontaneously on city streets only to be chased away by heavily armed police. An unverified video posted online early Tuesday showed demonstrators chanting against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the University of Tehran.

“Today, there were more officers everywhere in the city … in the east and west [of Tehran], nighttime clashes were widespread,” journalism student Amir Yaghoubali, who said he managed to connect briefly to the Internet, posted on Twitter early Tuesday.

“People are unaware of even the protests in Tehran, let alone in other cities,” he said, adding that he witnessed immense destruction of property and buildings in the eastern part of the capital.

The demonstrations began Friday following a government decree to cut fuel subsidies and ration supplies as officials sought ways to boost revenue for next year’s budget. U.S. sanctions targeting the Iranian economy, including oil exports, have deprived the government of a key source of income as growth wanes and prices rise.

Officials said that the fuel price hikes would raise funds for cash handouts to the poor, the first of which the government said would be distributed this week. But ordinary Iranians suffering under soaring inflation and fed up with corruption and waste balked at the decision. In recent days, protesters have ransacked and burned gas stations, banks and government buildings in major cities.

Iranian officials sought to downplay the scale of the protests, instead blaming the unrest on foreign enemies and saboteurs. Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, said that he endorsed the decision to raise gasoline prices by 50% and described the demonstrators as criminals and thugs.

“Calm has been restored in the country,” Gholamhossein Esmaili, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, told a news conference Tuesday, local media reported. “A large number of saboteurs and rioters who played a role in the destruction have been identified.”

A Revolutionary Guard commander said 150 “ringleaders” of the recent protests were arrested in Alborz province, while as many as 1,000 demonstrators were reported detained nationwide, according to local media.

The Fars News Agency quoted what it said was an intelligence report estimating that some 87,000 people had participated in the protests in about 100 locations. The report said the demonstrations consisted of between 50 and 1,500 people in cities across Iran.

In Karaj and Shahriar, west of Tehran, residents described widespread damage to government buildings. Two of the security personnel killed Monday night were reported to have been attacked near Shahriar.

In the Hengam district in east Tehran, one resident reported hearing gunfire into the night Monday. Reached by telephone, the residents spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by security forces.

Another resident said he was summoned by police, who accused him of participating in the demonstrations. A resident of Isfahan in central Iran said buildings in some parts of the city were either burned or “completely destroyed.”

The protests have underscored the frustration among ordinary Iranians who have watched Iran’s currency plummet and their savings evaporate. Similar cuts to subsidies set off demonstrations nearly two years ago.

Under the new order, the price of gasoline was raised from 10,000 to 15,000 rials, or 13 cents, per liter (50 cents per gallon).

Consumers are allocated 60 liters of gas at the minimum price, after which they will be charged double the amount per liter. Previously, consumers could purchase as many as 250 liters at the subsidized price.

On Tuesday, Iran’s consumer protection agency said it was prohibiting suppliers from raising the price of goods on the orders from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Trade.

Government officials conceded the botched rollout of reforms after announcing the decision in a late-night decree ahead of the weekend. Iran maintains the world’s fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and has some of its highest fuel subsidies, which economists say encourages waste.”Maybe we weren’t able to explain properly the benefits of implementing the plan,” Rabiei, the government spokesman, said Tuesday. “But I believe a fair decision was made to make subsidies more targeted.

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