Iran’s supreme leader broke his silence Tuesday on the anti-government protests erupting across the country, blaming the deadly unrest on foreign “enemies.”
“During the escapades of the past several days, Iran’s enemies, using the various tools at their disposal, including money, weapons, politics and security apparatus, have allied [with one another] to create problems for the Islamic establishment,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by state media in his first comments on the unrest that began Thursday.
Iran would be saved, Khamenei said, by “the spirit of courage, sacrifice and faith within the nation.”
He made the remarks during a weekly meeting with families of slain soldiers, but indicated on Twitter that he would deliver a more detailed address on the protests “when the time is right.”
State television reported that nine people were killed overnight in clashes between security forces and protesters, including “rioters” who attempted to raid a police station to capture weapons. That brings the death toll in the unrest to at least 21, according to the Associated Press.
Protests that began in the city of Mashhad over economic grievances have since spread to more than two dozen cities, with demonstrators confronting riot police and paramilitary forces while chanting for an end to the theocracy — the most significant outburst of public anger in Iran in nearly a decade.
The Trump administration called on Iran to stop blocking popular social media platforms, such as Instagram, which are being used by Iranian protesters.
"The more available these sites are, the better it is," U.S. Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said. He added that the platforms were legitimate avenues of communication, and he urged Iranians to find ways around government efforts to block them, such as use of virtual private networks, which often serve as a way for people to circumvent official censorship in many countries.
"We want to amplify their messages," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Tuesday at U.N. headquarters, before reading several purported social media messages that were highly critical of the Iranian government.
Haley said freedoms enshrined by the United Nations were "under attack" by Iranian authorities, including rights to free speech and liberty. She said the U.N. Security Council would hold an emergency meeting, possibly this week, to discuss the Iranian protests. It is likely that Russia would veto any attempted U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Tehran.
Haley said that there were no "unilateral measures" yet being proposed by the U.S. but that Washington would look closely at Iran's testing of missiles as deadlines for U.S. certification of the Iran nuclear deal and to extend sanctions waivers loom later this month.
President Hassan Rouhani has acknowledged people’s disappointment with the economy — which has been battered by international sanctions and, more recently, the declining price of oil — but said security forces would crack down on demonstrators who resort to violence.
The deputy governor of Tehran, the capital, said that 450 people were arrested over the last three days, the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported.
But Ali Asghar Naserbakht said the capital was under control and predicted that the demonstrations were calming down.
“Yesterday saw less people protesting on the streets,” Naserbakht said, according to the news agency. “The police for the most part calmed down the riots by inviting people to respect law and order, and arrests were made only in cases where people insisted on carrying out illegal activities.”
Iran’s deputy interior minister, Hossein Zolfaghari, said security forces had “decisively countered” lawbreakers while allowing peaceful demonstrators to air their frustrations.
“In most parts of the country, the situation has returned to normal, and with the cooperation of the people and with the efforts of the security forces, the remaining unrest in some regions will soon end,” he said, according to state media.