Iran price unrest turns political amid reports of protester deaths
Protests that have spread across Iran over a cut in state subsidies on food have turned political with slogans calling for top leaders to step down, according to posts on social media.
There are also unconfirmed reports that at least four protesters have been killed in the crackdown.
Protests began last week sparked by the government's decision to cut subsidies, which led to huge price hikes in Iran by as much as 300 percent for a variety of flour-based staples.
The government also raised the prices of some basic goods - such as cooking oil and dairy products - in Iran where almost half of its 85 million population is living under the poverty line, according to official figures.
Now protesters have expanded their demands, calling for more political reforms, an end to the Islamic Republic, and the downfall of its leaders, according to witnesses and social media posts.
Videos posted online showed demonstrators burning images of Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and calling for the return of Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the toppled former Iranian dictator.
Videos, reportedly from the city of Shahrekord, about 512 kilometres southwest of Tehran showed security forces beating and firing on protesters.
Mehdi Hajati, a former politician previously detained for speaking out against arrests of followers of the Bahai faith said on Twitter: "Shahrekord is taking our breath away from the intensity of its anger."
اعتراضات در شهرکرد/ امشب pic.twitter.com/WhTWXlTt74— سی سی خانوم (@cicikhanoom) May 15, 2022
More footage on Twitter showed protests in dozens of provinces such as Ardabil, Khuzestan, Lorestan and Razavi Khorasan. Some state-affiliated media, meanwhile, said calm had been restored in the country.
However, protests continued on early Sunday in at least 40 cities and towns across Iran, including in Quchan near the Turkmenistan border, the northern city of Rasht and the western city of Hamedan, according to videos posted on social media.
The New Arab and Reuters could not independently confirm authenticity of social media posts and videos. Iran's state news agency IRNA said on Friday that some shops were "set on fire in some cities", prompting police to arrest scores of "provocateurs".
The semi-official ILNA news agency on Saturday, citing a lawmaker, said one protester was killed in Dezful, a city in the oil producing southwestern province of Khuzestan. But videos on Twitter showed at least four demonstrators were killed by security forces.
Residents in Tehran, contacted by Reuters on Sunday, reported a heavy security presence across the capital.
Global internet monitor NetBlocks on Saturday reported a disruption lasting hours in Iran amid protests, a potential move by the authorities to prevent activist from communicating with each other and sharing videos on social media.
The latest unrest adds to mounting pressure on Iran's rulers, who are struggling to keep the crippled economy afloat under US sanctions, reimposed since 2018 when Washington ditched Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with major powers. Talks to revive the pact have stalled since March.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted in support of the protests on Sunday, saying: "Brave Iranian protestors are standing up for their rights. The Iranian people have a right to hold their government accountable."
Brave Iranian protestors are standing up for their rights. The Iranian people have a right to hold their government accountable. We support their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression online and offline - without fear of violence and reprisal.— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) May 15, 2022
Fearing a revival of protests in recent years that seemed to shed light on the establishment's vulnerability to popular anger over the economy, the government has described its decision as "fair redistribution" of subsidies to lower-income people.
In 2019, what began as scattered protests over a surprise increase in fuel prices, quickly spread into one of the biggest challenges to Iran's rulers, sparking one of the bloodiest crackdowns in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic.
The reported death toll in 2019 has varied between a Reuters account of 1,500 dead and an Amnesty International figure of more than 300. Both have been dismissed by Iranian authorities.
(Reporting by Reuters. Additional reporting by The New Arab Staff)