Iranian Internet Restored; Protest Videos Reveal Chaos

A building that was damaged during recent protests is cordoned off, in Shahriar, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Protests over government-set gasoline prices rising struck at least 100 cities and towns, spiraling into violence that saw banks, stores and police stations attacked and burned. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

Iran’s week-long blackout of the Internet ended on Sunday, unleashing a flood of online videos that revealed chaos and repressive violence during nationwide protests over rising gas prices.

The Associated Press reported that Internet connectivity began returning to large parts of Iran on Saturday, reaching almost 100 percent for landlines on Sunday, although mobile services are still largely offline. 

Iranians began sending video footage to the outside world as soon as they could:

One video from Shiraz, some 680 kilometers (420 miles) south of Tehran, purports to show a crowd of over 100 people scatter, as gunfire erupts from a police station in the city. One man bends down to pick up debris as a person off-camera describes demonstrators throwing stones. Another gunshot rings out, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.

In Kerman, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Tehran, the sound of breaking glass echoes over a street where debris burns. Motorcycle-riding members of the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Guard, then chase the protesters away.

Another video in Kermanshah, some 420 kilometers (260 miles) southwest of Tehran, purports to show the dangers that lurked on the streets of Iran in recent days. Plainclothes security forces, some wielding nightsticks, drag one man off by the hair of his head. The detained man falls at one point.

Iranian news editor M. Hanif Jazayeri said the videos provided “irrefutable evidence of [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei’s massacre” of demonstrators and predicted that, despite Tehran’s claims of restoring order across the country, “the ayatollahs’ reign is coming to an end in Iran.”

Videos uploaded after the end of the Internet blackout provided clear evidence that deadly force was used against protesters on a much larger scale than the Iranian government is willing to admit:

Kurdish news service Rudaw judged on Monday that the protests were “crushed,” along with a good deal of the gasoline smuggling that bedevils the regime, but “public anger still simmers.”

Rudaw suggested the Iranian government dramatically increased the price of its heavily subsidized gasoline in part to slow down fuel smuggling. The price increase was high enough to wipe out most of the profits enjoyed by smugglers, but the government insists it has seen no great decline in legitimate purchases of gasoline by Iranians.

Unfortunately for rural Iranians in the country’s ethnic enclaves, including the Kurdish region of Iran, smuggling subsidized gasoline out of Iran for sale at huge profits in other countries is an industry that provided thousands of jobs for the poorest Iranian citizens.

“For the time being there is no smuggling across the border because there is no profit. We don’t know what else to do now because there is no other work,” a smuggler complained to Rudaw, indicating that dozens of men in his village are now jobless.

Critics of the policy say the government underestimated the negative impact of higher gas prices on the poor, possibly because Tehran does not want to admit how damaging U.S. sanctions have been. 

They predicted the surge in joblessness and poverty, accompanied by increases in the price of food and other necessities, would lead to more protests — and thus to more violent crackdowns by Iranian authorities who suspect ethnic enclaves of harboring separatist ambitions.

Kurdish Iranians who spoke to Rudaw compared their towns to the war-torn Iraqi city of Fallujah after a week of street battles between protesters and security forces. They described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation settling over their towns, with security troops and intelligence operatives appearing everywhere and imposing controls such as a ban on large funerals for those killed during the protests.

“You have a pharaoh ruling the country. They think the anger of people is over, but this is just the beginning,” said one Kurdish housewife.

The Iranian government continues to portray the protests as espionage perpetrated by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the U.S. government designated a foreign terrorist organization, threatened a violent response on Monday if hostile powers continue crossing Iran’s “red lines.”

“We have shown restraint,” claimed IRGC Gen. Hossein Salami in a speech to pro-government demonstrators carrying “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” banners.

“We have shown patience towards the hostile moves of America, the Zionist regime, and Saudi Arabia against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said. “But we will destroy them if they cross our red lines.”

“We have arrested all stooges and mercenaries who have explicitly made confessions that they have been mercenaries of America, of Monafeghin and others,” another IRGC officer claimed. “Monafeghin” refers to an exiled opposition group, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran or MEK.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry also claimed the “interference of foreign countries” was responsible for the protests and advised foreigners to watch Monday’s pro-government demonstrations to “realize who the real people are in our country.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday railed against “the foreign minister of a certain country,” by which he meant U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for “stooping so low” as to ask for photos and videos of Iranian security forces using excessive violence.

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