- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Opponents of Iran’s theocratic regime have long predicted — wrongly — that the regime’s collapse was imminent.

But violent protests against the government rocking more than 100 Iranian cities in recent weeks, coupled with Washington’s rising economic and military pressure against Tehran, appear to be shaking the Islamic republic’s leaders at a level not seen in years.

Many analysts warn that the regime’s grip on power remains solid and capable of crushing a sustained uprising, but the Trump administration is eager to seize on the unrest, which some Iranian exile groups claim is far wider in scope — and deadlier — than Iran’s leaders have acknowledged.

Four days after asking Iranians to send information about the uprising via the encrypted Telegram messaging service, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that U.S. officials had received thousands of notes, including grisly videos depicting horrific crackdowns by authorities across Iran.

“We have received to date nearly 20,000 messages, videos, pictures, notes of the regime’s abuses,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We will continue to sanction Iranian officials who are responsible for these human rights abuses.”

The secretary of state stopped short of calling outright for “regime change” in Iran. Instead, he offered the following message: “To the courageous people of Iran who refuse to stay silent about 40 years of abuse by the ruling regime, I say simply this: The United States hears you. We support you and we will continue to stand with you in your struggle for a brighter future for your people and for your great nation.”

Separately, a leading international Iranian dissident group said Tuesday that the protests and the government crackdown in recent weeks have been broader in scope than reported by foreign news organizations and rights groups.

While Iran’s government claims the protests ended last week and were quickly crushed, and rights groups say about 150 people died in the crackdown, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported that more than 400 had been killed during an “anti-regime” uprising that took hold in 176 cities across the country.

The umbrella group of Iranian anti-regime organizations, which says it has a wide network of informants inside Iran, asserted in a report released in Washington on Tuesday that the protests were sparked by a government cut in fuel subsidies but quickly evolved into a broader attack on the legitimacy of the Islamic regime that has ruled the country for four decades.

“It did not take long,” the NCRI report said, “for the slogans to morph into calls for rejection of the regime in its entirety.”

“People chanted slogans against the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, while attacking centers of suppression, theft and particularly those affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” the report said. “Many of the buildings were torched and sustained serious damages.”

NCRI Deputy Director Alireza Jafarzadeh told The Washington Times in an email that demonstrators were chanting “Death to Rouhani” and “Death to Khamenei” in a manner that “clearly shows the society’s rage and explosive state and that the Iranian people demand regime change.”

“The recent uprising showed that change is attainable, and the people are ready to pay the price to make it happen,” Mr. Jafarzadeh said. “The world must recognize the right of the Iranian people to change the regime and establish a democratic, pluralistic, and non-nuclear republic in Iran.”

‘Appalling assault’

The NCRI, which has long advocated for regime change and is widely seen to have allies in the Trump administration, made the assertions a day after Amnesty International said it counted at least 143 fatalities in the crackdown against protesters since Nov. 15.

“The rising death toll is an alarming indication of just how ruthless the treatment of unarmed protesters has been by the Iranian authorities and reveals their appalling assault on human life,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Iran has not released a death toll and cut off citizens’ access to the internet for several days, making it difficult to ascertain the extent and severity of the demonstrations. Some top Iranian officials say they see the hand of the Trump administration and its allies behind the protests.

The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on Monday threatened the U.S. and its allies as he addressed a pro-government demonstration attended by tens of thousands of people denouncing the violent protests.

Gen. Hossein Salami, echoing other Iranian officials, accused the U.S., Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia of stoking the unrest. He said the recent rise in gasoline prices was a “mere pretext” for an attack on the nation.

At the pro-government rally, which state TV referred to as the “Rise of the people of Tehran against riots,” protesters carried signs bearing traditional anti-U.S. slogans.

But speakers also criticized Mr. Rouhani’s administration for the way the fuel price hike was implemented, even as they called for capital punishment for rioters and further restrictions on social media platforms.

Publicly criticizing the government is a delicate calculation in today’s Iran. An editorial published online Tuesday by the semi-official Islamic Republic News Agency’s managing director, Seyed Zia Hashemi, appeared to be an attempt at threading the needle, acknowledging the grievances of those who have taken to the streets.

“These demonstrations are partly due to economic issues and partly to problems that the underprivileged classes are suffering from,” Mr. Hashemi wrote, adding that “the people’s voice needs to be heard.”

“People’s demands need to be met by authorities. The recent demonstrations showed that officials should pay more attention to the society’s less privileged classes,” he wrote. “Recent unrest showed us that authorities need to do much more to keep people content and confident.”

The sting of sanctions

Iran has been gripped by a severe economic crisis since the Trump administration restored painful sanctions after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The sanctions undergird Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which has been central to Mr. Trump’s Iran strategy since pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal last year. Administration officials say the goal is to push Iranian leaders into new negotiations addressing not only their nuclear activities but also ballistic missile programs and backing of militant proxies across the Middle East.

The recent protests represent the worst anti-government unrest in Iran since the regime violently crushed the “Green Movement” uprisings of 2009. Dozens were killed in the crackdown on the protests, which followed reports of widespread fraud in the Islamic republic’s elections that year.

Although the latest uprising has been more widespread and garnered a more violent crackdown by the ruling regime, some in the Iranian-American community dismiss the notion that regime is on the verge of collapse.

“The idea that the Iranian government is on the verge of imminent collapse has long been promoted by various hawkish forces in the U.S. and some U.S.-based opposition groups. This continues to be wishful thinking,” said Sina Toossi, a senior research analyst with the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that says it aims to promote greater understanding between American and Iranian people.

“Millions of Iranians certainly have deep-seated economic and political grievances and want major change,” Mr. Toossi told The Times in an email Tuesday. “However, there exists no cohesive, mass revolutionary movement. The protests we’ve seen in the past week were leaderless and expressed different demands, from rescinding the gas price hike to fundamental change in the political system.”

“The Iranian government also clearly still has a significant repression capability, able to brutally put down protests and disconnect internet connections to the outside world,” he said.

“President Trump has seemingly given into the narrative that the Iranian regime is on its last legs and his ‘maximum pressure’ campaign will either bring its collapse or capitulation to U.S. demands,” Mr. Toossi said. “However, the real effect has become that the Iranian government is becoming more iron-fisted at home and less conciliatory abroad.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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