Iran on Monday accused the U.S. and Europe of directly fueling the deadly popular uprising that has gripped the Islamic republic, while the West threatened more economic sanctions on Tehran and called for an immediate end to the “brutality” with which Iranian security forces are treating protesters.
The aging leaders of the theocratic regime have turned back repeated domestic challenges in their four decades of rule, but the persistence of the protests, and their quick links to economic and other grievances, could prove the most serious threat to the mullahs’ powers.
The massive demonstrations across Iran, sparked by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s Islamist “morality police,” have claimed hundreds of lives and led to thousands of arrests, according to Iranian dissident organizations.
Monday marked the 10th straight day of protests over the death of Amini, who was arrested on a charge of wearing her hijab too loosely in an incident that has struck a nerve across Iranian society and led to a near-unprecedented outcry against Iran’s strict version of Islamic law.
It’s the first wave of major protests to hit Iran since hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi took office last year and the largest since a nationwide uprising in 2019 that was sparked by a massive hike in fuel prices. The Raisi government was already dealing with an economic crisis, a COVID-19 epidemic that hit Iran particularly hard, and the uncertain health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate political and religious authority and only the second cleric to hold the top post after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Anti-regime activists say it appears the Iranian government was caught off guard by the speed and intensity of the most recent demonstrations, though it’s not clear whether there is any genuine threat to the survival of the Raisi government.
Mr. Raisi has pledged a full investigation into the circumstances behind Amini’s death while in custody. Officials claimed it was the result of a preexisting heart condition, but that story was widely discredited even before photos of Amini’s apparently battered face were made public.
The protests also are driving an even deeper wedge between Iran and the West as the two sides negotiate to revive a 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Those talks have been overshadowed as the U.S. and Europe publicly blast the Iranian government’s handling of the protests.
Key Iranian officials said Monday that the U.S. and Europe are contributing directly to the demonstrations in an effort to destabilize the country and topple its Islamic government.
“The political leaders of America and Europe, their media, exploited a tragic incident under investigation and with the slogan of supporting the rights of the Iranian nation,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Monday in an Instagram post, according to English-language media reports of his comments.
“They did all they could to support the riots,” he said. “Attempts to violate Iran’s sovereignty will not go unanswered.”
In what may have been a related incident, The Associated Press, citing Iranian official news sources, reported that Iranian government forces unleashed a wave of drone and artillery strikes targeting what the government said were bases of Iranian Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq, a semi-official news agency reported. Amini was of Iranian Kurdish descent, and her death sparked particular anger in Kurdish-dominated lands.
Diplomatic sparring over who is to blame for the uprisings has intensified. On Sunday, Iran summoned the British ambassador to protest media coverage of the demonstrations. On Monday, Germany summoned the Iranian ambassador to demand that Tehran stop its crackdown on protesters.
“We call on the Iranian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to not deploy further violence — in particular not fatal violence — against protesters,” the German Foreign Ministry said after the meeting, according to Reuters. “We also communicated that directly to the Iranian ambassador in Berlin today.”
German officials reportedly left open the door to more economic sanctions against Tehran in response to the crackdown on protesters. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that “we will consider all options” as the situation unfolds.
The Biden administration on Friday slapped economic sanctions on Iran’s morality police and key officials across numerous Iranian security services and government agencies. The Treasury Department said in a statement that the moves were in direct response to “the recent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested and detained for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly.”
The administration also has taken steps to provide increased internet access for Iranian citizens whose ability to communicate has been curbed by a nationwide crackdown on social media.
“We are doing what we can to enable the people of Iran to exercise those universal rights,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.
Mr. Price condemned Iran’s treatment of protesters.
“Iran’s leaders should be listening to the protesters, not firing on them,” he said.
Private rights groups also have been sharply critical of the Iranian crackdown and the shuttering of popular social media networks to keep demonstrators from coordinating their tactics.
Amnesty International accused the government of a “harrowing pattern” of “deliberate and unlawful firing of live ammunition at protesters.”
“The rising death toll is an alarming indication of just how ruthless the authorities’ assault on human life has been under the darkness of the internet shutdown,” Heba Morayef, the London-based group’s Middle East director, said in a statement.
Although there is widespread agreement that security forces have killed demonstrators, the exact death toll remains murky. Citing Iranian state-run TV, The Associated Press reported late Sunday that at least 41 protesters and police had been killed since the uprisings began on Sept. 17.
Other sources said the death toll is much higher. Information circulated Monday by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — an umbrella group for Iranian dissidents who oppose the theocratic regime in Tehran — estimated that 200 people had died. Of those, 59 have been identified, the group said.
Citing sources inside Iran affiliated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a leading Iranian opposition outfit, NCRI said the protests have reached 154 cities. About 10,000 Iranians had been detained, the organization said.
For the Raisi regime, the protests have cast a spotlight on the disconnect between the government in Tehran and the Iranian population, analysts say. That rift deepened after the country’s strict adherence to Islamic law appeared to be directly responsible for the death of Amini.
“Amini’s tragic death is yet another reminder of how the Islamist rulers in Tehran remain tone-deaf to the demands of the Iranian people. Opposition to mandatory wearing of the veil, or hijab, is one in a long list of public grievances,” said Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute.
“The violence that led to Amini’s death was not accidental,” he wrote in an analysis for Foreign Policy magazine. “It is part and parcel of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s attitude toward any political dissent. He continues to believe that violent repression will drive protesters to retreat. But his policy choices are only deepening raw public anger against the Islamic Republic. Not only is Khamenei inciting the Iranian people against the regime, but his insistence on mandatory hijab-wearing is splitting the Islamic clerical class.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.