Khamenei says enemy ‘repelled’ in protest-hit Iran
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the enemy had been “repelled” in the country where dozens are thought to have died in violent protests sparked by a petrol price hike.
Demonstrations broke out in the sanctions-hit Islamic republic on Friday after it was announced the price of petrol would be immediately raised by as much as 200 percent.
They began with motorists blocking major roads in the capital Tehran and elsewhere but have spread rapidly to at least 40 cities and towns, with petrol pumps torched, police stations attacked and shops looted.
Officials have confirmed five deaths, including three security personnel stabbed by “rioters”, but London-based rights group Amnesty International said Tuesday that more than 100 demonstrators were believed to have been killed.
The full extent of the bloodshed is difficult to ascertain given a near-total internet blackout, now in its fourth day.
“We have pushed back the enemy in the military arena. We have pushed back the enemy in the political war,” Khamenei said in a speech aired on state television late Tuesday.
“We have repelled the enemy in the arena of security warfare… in recent days,” he said, adding that the unrest had not been the result of a popular movement.
“The recent actions were security issues, not from the people,” he said. “We have repelled the enemy.”
State television, which rarely shows any signs of dissent in Iran, has aired footage of masked young men appearing to clash with security forces.
On Tuesday, AFP journalists saw two petrol stations in Tehran gutted by fire and damage to infrastructure, including a police station.
Footage has been shown on state TV of rallies against “rioting” held in the northwestern city of Tabriz and in Shahr-e Kord, central Iran.
The United Nations called for restraint on Tuesday and voiced alarm at reports dozens may have been killed in the violence.
Its rights office said it was alarmed by reports live ammunition was being used against protesters and had caused a “significant number of deaths across the country”.
But spokesman Rupert Colville cautioned that casualty details were hard to verify, in part because the authorities have restricted internet access.
“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”.
Amnesty said “at least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed, according to credible reports”.
It added that “the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed”.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Tensions have soared this year, with the US widening its sanctions to include Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and other key entities as Iran has reduced 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 oil shipping lanes through the strategic waterway, regularly threatens to shut it down if its enemies commit hostile acts.
The petrol price hike was agreed by the High Council of Economic Coordination made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief.
President Hassan Rouhani has defended the move, saying the proceeds would go to 60 million needy Iranians.
Khamenei threw his support behind it in a televised address on Sunday.
In that speech, the supreme leader blamed foreign opponents of Iran’s establishment for the unrest.
They included the Pahlavi royal family ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) group, which Iran considers a “terrorist” cult.