Iran cleric urges tough action after price protests turn political

Iranian cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda delivers speech during a conservatives campaign gathering in Tehran February 24, 2016. (Reuters)
Updated 29 December 2017
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Iran cleric urges tough action after price protests turn political

DUBAI: A top cleric in Iran’s second largest city of Mashhad called for tough action by security forces after hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against high prices and shouted anti-government slogans, state news agency IRNA said on Friday.
Police arrested 52 people in Thursday’s protests, the semi-official Fars news agency quoted a judicial official as saying in Mashhad, one of the holiest places in Shiite Islam.
Political protests are rare in Iran. But demonstrations are often held by workers over layoffs or non-payment of salaries and people who hold deposits in non-regulated bankrupt financial institutions.
“If the security and law enforcement agencies leave the rioters to themselves, enemies will publish films and pictures in their media and say that the Islamic Republic system has lost its revolutionary base in Mashhad,” IRNA quoted prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda as saying.
Videos posted on social media showed demonstrators chanting “Death to (President Hassan) Rouhani” and “Death to the dictator.” Protests were also held in at least two other northeastern cities.
Alamolhoda, the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in northeastern Mashhad, said a few people had taken advantage of Thursday’s protests against rising prices to raise slogans against Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts.
“Some people had came to express their demands, but suddenly, in a crowd of hundreds, a small group that did not exceed 50, shouted deviant and horrendous slogans such as ‘Let go of Palestine’, ‘Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’d give my life for Iran’,” Alamolhoda said.
Videos on social media also showed demonstrators chanting “Leave Syria, think about us”, criticizing Iran’s military and financial support for President Bashar Assad who is fighting opponents of the government in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a close Rouhani ally, suggested that hard-line opponents of the president may have started the protests.
“When a social and political movement is launched on the streets, those who started it will not necessarily be able to control it in the end,” IRNA quoted Jahangiri as saying. “Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers. They think they will hurt the government by doing so.”
Rouhani’s signature achievement, a deal in 2015 with world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting most international sanctions, has yet to bring the broad economic benefits the government says are coming.
Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Center of Iran, up 1.4 percent from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.
Mashhad governor Mohammad Rahim Norouzian was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying that “the demonstration was illegal but the police dealt with people with tolerance.”
Videos posted on social media showed riot police using water cannon and tear gas to disperse crowds.
Norouzian was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA that the protests were organized by “enemies of the Islamic Republic” and “counter-revolutionaries.”
Political protests of national significance took place most recently in 2009 when Mahmoud Amadinejad’s re-election as president ignited an eight-month firestorm of street demonstrations. His pro-reform rivals said the vote was rigged.


Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

Updated 3 min 32 sec ago
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Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

ANKARA/AMMAN: Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who said it kept the area out of President Bashar Assad’s hands.
The deal unveiled on Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will create a demilitarised zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said that “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.”
The agreement halted a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.
But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground. It has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.
Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, and warned against any attack.
In striking the deal, Russia appears — at least for now — to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.
That goal is also obstructed by the presence of US forces in the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates that is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, and at a base near the borders with Jordan and Iraq.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down any notion the Turkey-Russia agreement had resolved the situation in Idlib.
“Idlib is one of the most complex problems in a complex theater (of conflict) right now. So I’m quite sure it’s not all sorted,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate extremists from other rebels — a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals.” Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.
The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria.” “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.
Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, said the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria.”
Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, expressed hope a government offensive was now off the table for good.
The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific time frame, which it did not detail.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV. “We do not trust Turkey ... but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons.”
’Catastrophe averted’
Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise ... in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means.”
“Is this merely a stay of execution? Or is it the beginning of a reprieve?” UN aid chief Mark Lowcock asked during a monthly meeting of the UN Security Council on Syria.
The demilitarised zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.
Neither Russia nor Turkey has explained how it plans to differentiate “radically minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarised area 15 to 20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.
Naji Abu Hufaiza, spokesman for the National Front for Liberation, said he did not have details of the agreement, but added that while he saw it as a success for Turkish diplomacy, his group did not trust Russia to uphold it.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir Al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front — an Al-Qaeda affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation.”
The area is also the last major haven for foreign extremists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.
Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarised zone.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran.