Iranian protesters continue to rage against regime after pro-government rallies

Protests flared in Iran for an eighth straight night on Friday over the death of a young woman arrested by morality police, verified social media posts showed, hours after counter-demonstrations mobilized by authorities.

At least 50 people have been killed by security forces in the anti-government protests, according to Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based organization.

The street violence, which the rights group said has spread to 80 towns and cities, was triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian who had spent three days in a coma after being detained by the morality police in Tehran.

Verified footage spread on social media showed large crowds of protesters gathering in several neighborhoods of the capital Tehran after dark, just hours after the government-backed rallies dispersed.

Some were confronted by armed anti-riot police or militia.

Iran has imposed tough restrictions on the use of the internet in a bid to hamper protesters gathering and stop the flow of images of the backlash from reaching the outside world.

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran, September 21, 2022. (AP)

The United States announced Friday it was easing export restrictions on Iran to expand internet services, days after SpaceX owner Elon Musk said he would seek an exemption from sanctions to offer his company’s Starlink satellite service in Iran.

The new US measures will “help counter the Iranian government’s efforts to surveil and censor its citizens,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people,” he said.

On Friday, thousands took to the streets in support of the hijab at government-backed counter rallies in Tehran and other cities.

“The great demonstration of the Iranian people condemning the conspirators and the sacrileges against religion took place today,” Iran’s Mehr news agency said.

State television broadcast footage of pro-hijab demonstrators in central Tehran, many of them men but also women dressed in black chadors.

A pro-government demonstrator holds a picture of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a rally after Friday prayers to condemn recent anti-government protests over the death of a young woman in police custody, in Tehran, Iran, September 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The pro-government demonstrators chanted against America and Israel, according to state media, reflecting the official line that blames the latest unrest on hostile foreign countries.

Amini died on September 16, three days after she was hospitalized following her arrest by the morality police, the unit responsible for enforcing Iran’s strict dress code for women.

Activists said she suffered a blow to the head in custody but that has been disputed by the Iranian authorities, who have opened an investigation.

After she was pronounced dead, angry protests flared and spread to major cities, including Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Tabriz as well as her native Kurdish province.

In the latest violence, demonstrators clashed with security forces on Friday evening in the city of Bokan in West Azerbaijan province, said Hengaw, another Oslo-based rights group. The report by the organisation could not be independently verified.

In the city of Babol, in northern Mazandaran province, demonstrators were seen setting ablaze a large billboard bearing the image of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in videos shared online.

Unverified footage appeared to show protesters setting fire to a base of the feared Basij militia on Ferdowsi Street in downtown Tehran.

Some women demonstrators have defiantly taken off their hijabs and burned them in bonfires or symbolically cut their hair before cheering crowds, footage showed.

Videos on social media showed protesters in Tehran torching a police car and confronting officers. Others show gunfire ringing out as protesters bolt from riot police, shouting: “They are shooting at people! Oh my God, they’re killing people!”

In the northwestern city of Neyshabur, protesters cheered over an overturned police car. Footage from Tehran and Mashhad shows women waving their obligatory headscarves, known as hijab, in the air like flags while chanting, “Freedom!”

Demonstrators have hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, state news agency IRNA reported.

“The government has responded with live ammunition, pellet guns and tear gas, according to videos shared on social media that have also shown protesters bleeding profusely,” the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said.

Internet access has been restricted in what web monitor NetBlocks has called a “curfew-style pattern of disruptions.”

“Online platforms remained restricted and connectivity is intermittent for many users and mobile internet was disrupted for a third day on Friday,” NetBlocks said.

Authorities have tightened restrictions on popular platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp, which can be used to organize rallies.

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country’s conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran, Iran, September 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Measures were taken in response to “the actions carried out via these social networks by counter-revolutionaries against national security,” Iran’s Fars news agency said.

Separately, hackers have targeted a number of government websites in recent days, taking some of them down at least briefly. On Friday, hackers interrupted Iran’s Channel 3 on a popular streaming website and played videos in support of the protests. Normal programming was restored a couple of minutes later.

The protests have grown into an open challenge to the theocracy established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The chants have been scathing, with some chanting “Death to the dictator!” and “Mullahs must be gone!”

“The death has tapped into broader antigovernment sentiment in the Islamic Republic and especially the frustration of women,” wrote political risk firm Eurasia Group. It noted that Iran’s hard-liners have intensified their crackdown on women’s clothing over the past year since former judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi became president.

President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, center, is escorted after arrival at UN headquarters, September 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

“The prospect of the leadership offering concessions to Iranian women is minimal,” it said. “In the cold calculus of Iranian leaders, the protests have likely gone far enough and a more forceful response is required to quell the unrest.”

Raisi condemned the protests as he arrived back in Iran after addressing the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

“We have announced many times that if anyone has a fair comment, we will listen to it. But anarchy? Disturbing national security? The security of people? No one will succumb to this,” he said.

Iran has grappled with waves of protests in the recent past, mainly over a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by American sanctions linked to its nuclear program. In November 2019, the country saw the deadliest violence since the revolution, as protests erupted over gas price hikes.

Economic hardship remains a major source of anger today as the prices of basic necessities soar and the Iranian currency declines in value.

The Biden administration and European allies have been working to revive the 2015 nuclear accord, in which Iran curbed its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but the talks have stalled for months. Iran has demanded a halt to United Nations nuclear inspections, a non-starter for the Western powers, stalling the negotiations.

The Eurasia Group said the protests make any immediate return to the agreement less likely, as Iran’s government will be more hesitant to make concessions at a time of domestic unrest and the United States will be reluctant to sign a deal as Iran violently cracks down on dissent.