Tehran (AFP) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday the country’s people had defeated an “enemy conspiracy” behind a wave of violent street protests and were celebrating their victory.
He blamed the days of unrest on “armed anarchists” who took to the streets “based on a plot that the region’s reactionary, the Zionists and Americans had hatched,” referring to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US.
The demonstrations erupted in the sanctions-hit Islamic republic on Friday after an announcement the price of petrol would be raised by as much as 200 percent with immediate effect.
Motorists blocked major roads in Tehran before the unrest spread rapidly to at least 40 urban centres, with petrol pumps torched, police stations attacked and shops looted.
Officials have confirmed five deaths, including of three security personnel stabbed by “rioters”.
Thousands of mourners chanted “Death to America” at the funeral procession Wednesday for one of those killed, a Revolutionary Guard commander, in Shahriar, west of Tehran.
The UN has voiced alarm at reports of dozens of deaths, and Amnesty International said more than 100 demonstrators were believed to have been killed.
The London-based rights group added that “the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed”.
The full extent of the bloodshed was difficult to ascertain given a near-total internet blackout now in its fourth day.
– ‘Armed anarchists’ –
Rouhani told a cabinet meeting that “our people have been victorious against… the enemy’s conspiracy.
“Those anarchists who came out to the streets were few in number,” he said, insisting that “this is the biggest display of the power of the nation of Iran.”
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had said earlier also that “the recent actions were security issues, not from the people.
“We have repelled the enemy.”
Days ago Khamenei had blamed foreign opponents of Iran’s establishment for the unrest — among them the Pahlavi royal family ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran group, which Iran considers a “terrorist” cult.
At the funeral in Shahriar, mourners marched behind a truck carrying his coffin, clutching portraits of the slain Guard as well as posters that read “Down With USA”.
As they marched, they passed buildings gutted by fire, including a bank, post office and shopping centre.
Morteza Ebrahimi was one of three security personnel who officials say was killed by “rioters” wielding knives and machetes.
The others were members of the Basij, a militia loyal to Iran’s establishment.
State television, which rarely shows any signs of dissent in Iran, again aired footage on Tuesday night of the unrest in cities including Tehran and Shiraz.
The UN human rights office Tuesday said it was alarmed by reports live ammunition had been used against protesters and caused a “significant number of deaths”.
But spokesman Rupert Colville cautioned that casualty details were hard to verify, in part because of internet restrictions.
“We urge the Iranian authorities and security forces to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful assemblies,” he said.
Colville also called on protesters to demonstrate peacefully, “without resorting to physical violence or destruction of property”.
– US warships –
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions.
Tensions have soared this year, with the US widening its sanctions to include Khamenei, the Guards and other key entities as Iran scaled back its nuclear commitments.
The arch-foes came to the brink of a military confrontation in June when Iran downed a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory strikes before cancelling them at the last minute.
On Tuesday, the US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway separating Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Iran, which controls much of the strategic waterway, regularly threatens to shut it down if its enemies commit hostile acts.
Last week’s surprise fuel price hike was agreed by an economic council made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief.
Rouhani has defended the move, pledging its proceeds would go to the needy.
In his remarks on Wednesday, he said the first payments had been made to more than seven million Iranians, and that in total 18 million people would get handouts by Saturday.