Iran warns protesters against pursuing bold challenge to leadership

Students take part in a protest inside Tehran University. (AP)
Updated 01 January 2018
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Iran warns protesters against pursuing bold challenge to leadership

LONDON: Iran warned of a tough crackdown on Sunday against demonstrators who pose one of the most audacious challenges to its clerical leadership since nationwide pro-reform unrest jolted the theocracy in 2009.
Tens of thousands of people have protested across the country since Thursday against the country’s unelected clerical elite and Iranian foreign policy in the region. They have also chanted slogans in support of political prisoners.
Demonstrators initially vented their anger over economic hardships and alleged corruption but they have also begun to call on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down.
The government said it would temporarily restrict access to the Telegram and Instagram messaging apps, state television quoted an informed source as saying.
Deep level of anger
An Iranian reached by telephone, who asked not to be named, said there was a heavy presence of police and security forces in central Tehran.
“I saw a few young men being arrested and put into police van. They don’t let anyone assemble,” he said.
Video from earlier days posted on social media showed people chanting: “Mullahs, have some shame, leave the country alone.”
The demonstrators also shouted: “Reza Shah, bless your soul.” Such calls are evidence of a deep level of anger and break a taboo. The king ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941 and his Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The protests are the biggest since unrest in 2009 that followed the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Demonstrators denounce high prices, corruption and mismanagement. Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in this fiscal year, up 1.4 percent from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.
The demonstrations are particularly troublesome for President Hassan Rouhani’s government because he was elected on a promise to guarantee rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
His main achievement is a deal in 2015 with world powers that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for a lifting of most international sanctions. But it is yet to bring the economic benefits the government promised.
“Those who damage public property, violate law and order and create unrest are responsible for their actions and should pay the price,” state media quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as saying.
Ali Asghar Naserbakht, deputy governor of Tehran province, was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency that some protesters had been arrested on Saturday.
Social media videos
Videos posted on social media showed families gathering in front of Evin Prison in Tehran, asking for information about relatives arrested in recent days.
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said some of the arrested protesters have confessed “they were carried away by emotions and set fire to mosques and public buildings” and said they will face heavy punishment for the crimes.
“After giving thousands of martyrs for the revolution, the nation will not return to dark era of Pahlavi rule,” he said.
Protests appear spontaneous
Protesters defied the police and Revolutionary Guards who have used violence to crush previous unrest. The demonstrations could be more worrying for authorities because they seem spontaneous and lack a clear leader.
No political party had urged Iranians to take to the streets and opposition leaders who galvanized Iranians during 2009 are under house arrest. In addition, the range of slogans suggests discontent across social classes with government policies.
Iran has a dual system of clerical and republican rule, in which each faction vies for control. The supreme leader rules for life and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He also appoints the head of the judiciary and, in all, has more power over foreign and economic policy than the elected president.
Analysts say Iran’s leaders believe they can count on the support of many from a generation that took part as youths in the 1979 revolution and the ensuing eight-year war with Iraq to continue to defend the religious system, despite their advancing age, because of their ideological commitment and the economic gains they have made under the government.
In apparent response to the protests, the government backed down on plans to raise fuel prices, promised to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more jobs in coming years.
“We predict that at least 830,000 jobs will be created in the new year,” government spokesman Mohammed Baqer Nobakht said. He gave no details. Around 3.2 million Iranians are jobless.
Costly interventions in Syria, Iraq rapped
Iranians also expressed anger over their country’s costly interventions in Syria and Iraq.
Videos on social media showed protesters in the city of Shiraz tearing down a banner of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ that overseas operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
The US condemned the scores of arrests of protesters reported by Iranian media.
Trump’s tweets
President Donald Trump tweeted: “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!“
Trump refused in October to certify that Tehran is complying with its 2015 nuclear deal and said he might terminate the agreement. He also detailed a more aggressive approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for militant groups.
Haley’s statement
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said Iran’s government is “being tested by its own citizens.”
“We pray that freedom and human rights will carry the day,” she said in a statement. “The long-repressed Iranian people are now finding their voice,” she said.
Canadian praise
Canada said it was encouraged by the protests. The country suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and called Tehran the biggest threat to global security.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state media that “Canada’s intervention in Iranian affairs is a violation of international conventions.”
British remarks
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his Twitter page that it was “vital that citizens should have the right to demonstrate peacefully.”
Protesters have attacked banks and government buildings and burned police vehicles. Two demonstrators were shot dead in the western town of Dorud on Saturday night.
Ahmad Khatami, a cleric who leads Friday prayers in Tehran, called for capital punishment for those chanting slogans against the values of the country.


UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

Updated 25 June 2018
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UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

RIYADH/ADEN: The Iran-aligned Houthi movement fired missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh late on Sunday, escalating tensions ahead of a visit by the UN envoy to Yemen this week to try to avert a military assault on the country’s main port city.
A Houthi spokesman has threatened more attacks in response to the offensive launched by a Saudi-led coalition on June 12 to seize control of Hodeidah port, long a key target, in an attempt to weaken the Houthis by cutting their main supply line.
The United Nations fears that an assault on the Red Sea port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths is due in the southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the legitimate government’s temporary capital, government officials said.
One official said Griffiths would be there only for a few hours for talks focused on averting an assault on the port.
“There is a proposal on the table,” the foreign minister of Hadi’s government, Khaled Al-Yamani, told reporters in Riyadh.
“We would accept a peace initiative on the condition that militias leave the western coast,” he said at a joint press conference to announce a $40 million project launched by Saudi Arabia for de-mining operations in Yemen.
The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of the port to the United Nations, sources told Reuters. A US official said Washington was urging the Saudis and Emiratis to accept the deal.
The coalition said on Monday that eight members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had been killed in battles in the mountainous Saada region in Yemen’s northwest, which is held by the Houthis along with the capital Sanaa.
Hezbollah officials could not be immediately reached for comment, but the group has previously denied Saudi accusations that it is helping Houthi rebels.
MISSILES OVER RIYADH
Saudi air defense forces intercepted two rockets over Riyadh late on Sunday, sending debris measuring up to several meters hurtling toward residential areas.
Pieces fell near the US mission in the Saudi capital and at a school in the diplomatic quarter. Debris sparked a fire at a construction site 10 km (six miles) further south and fell on the roof of a private residence, but Saudi officials said there were no casualties.
“Our rockets will reach places that the enemy will not expect,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said. “The longer the aggression and war continue, the greater our ballistic missile capabilities.”
Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Malki said the alliance’s advances on Hodeidah and other fronts were pushing the Houthis to try to project strength through such attacks.
Coalition-backed forces seized Hodeidah airport last week and have been consolidating their hold in the area as more Houthi fighters, many armed with Ak-47 assault rifles, were deployed in the city and around the port.
The United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in Iranian-made missiles, accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
The coalition has pledged a swift military operation to take over the airport and seaport without entering the city center, to minimize civilian casualties and maintain the flow of goods.