Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the widespread protests across the country in the past 12 days a “dangerous conspiracy” against the Islamic Republic plotted by the United States.
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Last week, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in cities across the country to protest a dramatic increase in fuel prices. Police and security forces have confronted protests with severe violence.
Khamenei’s charge comes one day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced strong support for protesters again and called on Iran’s leaders to stop their crackdown.
The Trump administration has also taken steps to actively support the protesters, according to a State Department official, helping to boost internet connectivity in the country and calling for protesters to submit videos and photos of the government crackdown.
Amnesty International reported on Monday that at least 143 people have been killed in the last week by security forces in different cities, almost entirely by firearms. ABC News is unable to independently verify those figures because of restrictions in Iran.
While Khamenei and other Iranian authorities said they recognize people’s right to protest, they robustly defended the bloody crackdown, saying that many of those on the streets were “rioters” connected to the foreign powers, not protesters.
“Police, Basij [an Iranian paramilitary militia] and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took over the scene and carried out their duty in a tough confrontation,” said Ayatollah Khamenei in a speech Wednesday before thousands of Basij members, according to his office’s official website.
“It was a very extensive, deep and dangerous conspiracy, plotted by sparing a lot of money and efforts. [Iran’s enemies] had worked hard to prompt the move in a critical occasion. But it was undermined by the people,” he added.
Pompeo denied any U.S. interference, saying the Trump administration has only voiced support for the Iranian people and sanctioned government officials for malign behavior.
“The last refuge of those who fail is to blame someone else. This has nothing to do with anyone outside of Iran fomenting these protests. This is the Iranian people struggling for freedom, demanding their rights, desiring the capacity to take care of their own people,” he told Iran International Friday, a U.K.-based Persian satellite channel.
The decision to triple the fuel price on Nov. 15 — sparking the protests across the country — was made by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, which includes the heads of the three powers of the Islamic Republic. The council was established in the spring of 2019 by the order of Khamenei to counter severe U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
In the days after the fuel price increase, protesters have blocked highways and streets by stopping their cars in the middle of traffic, while others set fire to gas stations, banks and other public and private property.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called those who set fires “mercenaries, rioters and thugs” and blamed foreign powers for igniting the protests.
“They had trained [agents] and sent them money for two years. They kept spreading propaganda along with putting economic pressures. They wanted to send them to the streets once people are filled with anger,” he said in his visit to the northwestern city of Tabriz on Wednesday, Entekhab News Agency reported.
Iran’s economy has severely contracted in recent years, especially after President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, reimposed strong sanctions on Tehran and enforced them stringently.
Those sanctions have driven down Iranian oil exports precipitously — the country’s main source of revenue, and shrank the job market, increased inflation and sunken value of the country’s currency.
Iran’s leaders have accused the U.S. of “economic terrorism” to overthrow the government, but Pompeo and others have said they are demanding Iran “behave like a normal nation” and supporting the Iranian people.
The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action, was signed in 2015 under the Obama administration by Iran, the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, Germany and France. Tehran had agreed to put a cap on its nuclear activities in return for the easing of economic sanctions by the West.
Iranian officials said that the fuel price increase was to compensate for the budget shortfalls caused by U.S. sanctions. The government promised to allocate all of the revenue of the fuel price increase to vulnerable households.
On Monday, authorities organized a demonstration in the capital city of Tehran for government supporters to denounce last week’s protests and condemn the U.S. for allegedly interfering in Iran, with some holding “Death to America” signs. Demonstrators also carried signs with soft slogans complaining about increasing prices.
In an unprecedented move, Iranian authorities shut down the country’s internet, blocking organizers from planning gatherings and the media from covering the crackdown. The internet shutdown continued for the whole week, blocking people’s access to the news beyond the official state media and kept them in dark about the extent of the unrest in the country.
During that time, the U.S. attempted to keep the internet online, according to a State Department official, who told ABC News the U.S. has undertaken efforts “to enable Iranians to communicate with each other and with the outside world. … We estimate that tens of thousands of Iranians are using circumvention tools facilitated by the U.S. or our partners — even during the shutdown.”
Unofficial statistics say thousands have been arrested for organizing or attending protests including university students and journalists.
Some Twitter users claimed that families of the people killed in the protests have been asked money by authorities to get back the bodies of their beloveds. The claim was categorically denied by an Iranian official.
“I categorically deny such a thing. It does make no sense,” said Habibollah Asefi, security deputy of Khuzestan Province, in an interview with ILNA on Tuesday. The province of Khuzestan was the last in restoring its Internet, due to the high risk of protests in the region.
Asked about university students arrested during the protests, Iran’s minister of science, research and technology said he hoped their problem would be solved soon: “They (the students arrested) are all good and, God willing, their problems will soon be solved,” Mansour Gholami said as Iranian Students News Agency reported on Wednesday. He did not provide more details on the specific charges against them or the exact time of their release.
While WiFi and mobile data connections are gradually restored, many people are still worried it will be cut again.
“I am scared,” said a Tehran-based Iranian university student, who didn’t want her name to be disclosed for security reasons. “I am scared that we are going to be another North Korea.”
“I didn’t go to the streets for the fuel price increase,” said an Iranian teacher to the ABC News. She did not want her name to be published for security reasons.
“But I will go if the internet gets cut again,” she added.