DUBAI (Reuters) – Thousands of supporters of Iran’s clerical establishment rallied in Tehran on Monday, accusing the United States and Israel of instigating the most violent anti-government protests for a over a decade in the Islamic Republic.
Thousands of young and working-class Iranians took to the streets on Nov. 15 after gasoline price hikes of at least 50% were announced, voicing outrage at a further squeeze on living costs compounding hardships imposed by renewed U.S. sanctions.
Protesters quickly expanded their demands to include a removal of leaders seen as unaccountable and corrupt. Violence erupted with at least 100 banks and dozens of buildings torched, the worst disturbances since unrest over alleged election fraud was crushed in 2009, with dozens killed by security forces.
Hossein Salami, the top commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, warned the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia not to push Tehran into devastating retaliation over what it sees as their support for protesters.
“We have shown restraint…We have shown patience towards the hostile moves of America, the Zionist regime (Israel) and Saudi Arabia against Iran…But we will destroy them if they cross our red lines,” Salami told pro-government demonstrators in Tehran’s Revolution Square, state television reported.
State TV carried live footage of crowds chanting “Death to America,” and “Death to Israel”. It and Iranian officials had promoted the state-sponsored rally since Sunday in response to Western statements of solidarity with fuel price protesters.
“I recommend they (foreign countries) look at the marches today, to see who the real people in Iran are and what they are saying,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
The Islamic Republic has maintained that “thugs” linked to exiles and the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia of stirring up the street unrest, during which Amnesty International said around 115 protesters were killed.
“Death to the dictator. Time for you to step down!” chanted protesters in social media videos posted by Iranians from inside the country. The images could not be verified by Reuters.
State authorities warned “rioters” of severe punishment if unrest continued. They said late last week that disturbances had ceased, although unverified videos posted on social media after restrictions on internet access were partially lifted suggested sporadic protests were continuing in parts of the country.
Washington has sided with Iran’s protesters, while France and Germany have expressed deep concern over reports of many deaths during the protests.
Rights group Amnesty International said last week that security forces had fired into crowds of protesters from rooftops and, in one case, from a helicopter.
Social media footage showed dozens of police on motorbikes driving into crowds and attacking protesters with clubs. Other videos showed police firing at people with live ammunition.
Iran has rejected Amnesty’s death toll figures as “speculative”, saying several people, including members of the security forces, had been killed and over 1,000 people arrested. The Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group, said the number of arrests was likely closer to 4,000.
“My cousin has been arrested. We don’t know where he is and whether he is alive or not,” said a young protester in Tehran.
Some Iranian lawmakers have called for “the execution of “ringleaders of the riots”.
Anxious to curb support for the unrest, authorities blocked internet access for several days before partially restoring it on Thursday. Washington imposed sanctions on Iran’s information minister for his role in “wide-scale internet censorship”.
Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich