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Tehran says protests subsiding as internet blackout drags on

Iranian authorities say a recent wave of nationwide protests has largely subsided, but a government-enforced internet shutdown and tight security measures remain in place.
People protest against increased gas price, on a highway in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC2CCD9U9AIN

A massive security presence and an internet blackout continue across Iran five days after the government introduced controversial cuts to gasoline subsidies. The austerity plan fueled worries about inflation and higher gasoline prices, and triggered nationwide protests that soon turned into large anti-government demonstrations.

The rallies have seen intense confrontations between security forces and Iranians, leaving behind government buildings ablaze and massive damage to public property. Numerous reports state that security forces have fired live ammunition, leading to an unspecified number of deaths among protesters. The government denies responsibility for any deaths, saying several members of its forces have been killed in the scuffles. 

As of Nov. 19, according to Iranian authorities, the protests had largely subsided and normal life had resumed in most of the 100 cities where protests took place. "Thanks to the blessing of the remarks by the supreme leader, the efforts by security forces and people's vigilance, calm has returned to the country and many of the rioters have been identified," declared judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili. He urged everyone to "stand out of the queues of the violence-seeking individuals."

Kayhan, an ultraconservative daily representing Iran's hard-liners, claimed that many of the arrested protest leaders confessed their links to a campaign by foreign states to instigate violence. The paper demanded punishment by "execution by hanging" for the "hired thugs." Pro-Reformist outlets also followed the official narrative, attacking "saboteurs" seeking to exploit public grievances.

Despite the unanimous condemnation of the protests among political elites, criticism of how the government announced the cuts to gasoline subsidies continued. While many economists see the plan as a step toward the fair distribution of subsidies to the needy, they pointed out the government's poor timing. Most Iranians in the past two years have seen their purchasing power shrink due to US economic sanctions, a nosedive in the national currency and rampant state corruption.

Furthermore, the government's failure to recognize potential public reactions ahead of the announcement has also come under serious questioning. Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi said President Hassan Rouhani's government should have made efforts to convince the public of a need for a subsidy cut in advance. Raisi, Rouhani and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani were the sole members of the council who ratified the decision after a green light from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rouhani elucidated the merits of the plan in a Nov. 17 televised speech, but he did not attempt to placate public anger. He took aim at residents who have turned off their engines in streets to protest new gasoline prices. Rouhani reminded those protesters that there were "surveillance cameras" everywhere. Yet he highlighted the right to peacefully protest.

Article 27 of the Iranian Constitution guarantees the right to protest on the condition that demonstrators do not carry arms. Last year, members of the Tehran City Council unanimously approved a plan designating venues where crowds could gather freely to protest. The bill, however, is pending due to opposition from the Interior Ministry.

In the wake of the latest protests, a debate over designated protest venues has resurfaced. Without such spaces for protests, there is a greater risk of radicalizing otherwise peaceful demonstrations. Laya Joneidi, Rouhani's deputy for legal affairs, said, "The right to protest cannot be practiced unless such venues are set up by the government where police will provide security and we will no longer witness violent incidents."

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