Largely unmentioned by Iranian authorities, protests against the regime have been raging for several days in several major cities, including Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and Tehran, driven by concerns over the economy as well as wider anger at the political system.
On Saturday, the conservative Fars news agency reported that hundreds of protesters had attacked a religious school in Karaj province near Tehran the night before.
The rulers of Iran may have a good reason to hide the scale of the demonstrations. According to reports, many protesters stressed that they blame their government, not Washington, for the expected effects of US sanctions, which are due to restart on Monday after the Trump Administration pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
“As long as the dictator [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] stands, the uprising will continue,” shouted demonstrators in the city of Karaj, the Arab News website reported on Friday.
In Isafan, marchers shouted “death to the dictator,” before appearing to set fire to police cars, CBS News reported.
“The enemy is here; they are lying when they say it is America,” protesters in Isfahan chanted, according to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) which receives support from some in the Trump administration.
The state-run IRNA news agency said Thursday around 100 people protested in the northern city of Sari, as well as unknown numbers in Shiraz, Ahavz and Mashhad, but that the demonstrations were broken up by police as they were taking place without permission from authorities.
Videos on social media, which could not be independently verified, purported to show clashes between protesters and authorities.
Major clashes in Karaj tonight as #Iran rgm's storm troopers try to put down 4th night of #IranProtests. Chants of "Death to Khamenei" & "Death to the dictator" as ppl fend off armed forces w/ stones. Video via MEK activists #FreeIran2018 @GMarquis45 @BenEvansky @EricShawnTV pic.twitter.com/gJLfIeABiW
— M. Hanif Jazayeri (@HanifJazayeri) August 3, 2018
Videos on social media in recent days have shown people chanting “Death to the dictator,” but authorities have charged that such footage was promoted by emigre opposition groups funded by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign media are barred from observing or filming “unauthorized” protests.
The numerous protests that have sparked across Iran are a continuation of sorts of a nationwide anti-government movement that started gaining ground in late December and continued protesting sporadically throughout the year.
Since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal in May the Iranian rial has slipped to record lows, and has consequently led many in the authoritarian country to dare to explicitly call for an end to the rule of Iran’s Islamist leadership.
During past unrest, conservative outlets have focused on attacks against sensitive symbols such as religious buildings as a way of tarnishing the protests.
Fars said the religious school in Karaj province was attacked on Friday night. “At 9 p.m. on Friday they attacked the school and tried to break the doors down and burn things,” Fars quoted the head of the school in the town of Ishtehad, Hojatoleslam Hindiani, as saying.
It gave only his clerical rank — Hojatoleslam — not his given name.
“They were about 500 people and they chanted against the system but they were dispersed by the riot police and some have been arrested,” Hindiani said.
Amid the rapidly-spreading protests, Iran’s parliament announced Wednesday it would hold a special session to question President Hassan Rouhani about the plummeting currency and struggling economy.
Lawmakers plan to separately question Labor Minister Ali Rabiei over the 12.5 percent unemployment rate. He already appeared before parliament in March, when they voted to keep him in office.
Pressure is building on Rouhani as Iran’s economic woes mount. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered Rouhani, the speaker of parliament and the head of the judiciary to work together and find a way to resolve the problems.
On Tuesday, 200 of 290 members of parliament signed a letter to Rouhani urging him to make changes to his economic team.
Rouhani’s administration has already replaced the central bank governor and taken other measures to shore up the currency, which hit a new low this week.
Meanwhile, some hardliners have called for new elections or for Rouhani’s civilian government to be replaced by a military-led one.
Early last week, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected reports it may be open to fresh negotiations with the United States, as the country’s currency hit a record low ahead of the re-imposition of the sanctions.
“The US or parts of the US may express wishes [about talks], but after the [US] illegal withdrawal from the JCPOA and their hostile policies and push for economic pressure on the Iranian nation, I think there is no such issue” in the works, the Tasnim News Agency reported spokesman Bahram Qassemi as saying.
The foreign ministry’s rebuke of “media speculation” came two days days after the influential parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, was quoted suggesting Iran could be open to talks with the US, if such a move has widespread backing from the country’s leaders.
Qassemi also dismissed any tie between a recent trip by the Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Oman and the Omani foreign minister’s visit to Washington last week.
Oman hosted Iranian and Obama administration officials during the negotiations leading to the 2015 nuclear deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
The visit has been seen by some as a sign that Oman is acting as a mediator between the US and Iran. Muscat hosted secret preliminary talks between the Obama administration and Iran’s leadership in 2011.
Larijani was quoted in unsourced reports on last month purportedly saying that if the entire Iranian establishment was in agreement, Iran could negotiate with the US. This unsourced quotation was repeated prominently on Israel’s Hadashot TV news on Monday evening.
The unconfirmed reports of a possible shift in Iran’s stance on negotiations with the US have come as the free fall of its economy continued Monday, with the rial dropping to 122,000 to the dollar on the thriving black market exchange, from the previous low set the day before of 116,000 to the dollar.
In a statement dated Sunday, the central bank alleged the rial’s drop was the result of foreign conspiracies and said the currency’s weakness against the dollar was not a reflection of “economic realities.”
“Recent developments in the gold and forex markets are part of the conspiracies hatched by the country’s enemies in order to agitate the economy and rob the people of their psychological security,” the statement said, according to Radio Farda.
The central bank stressed it was “closely watching the developments.”
The rial has lost half its value against the dollar in just four months, having broken through the 50,000-mark for the first time in March.
The government attempted to fix the rate at 42,000 in April, and threatened to crack down on black market traders.
But the trade continued with Iranians worried about a prolonged economic downturn turning to dollars as a safe way to store their savings, or as an investment in the hope the rial will continue to drop.
With banks often refusing to sell their dollars at the artificially low rate, the government was forced to soften its line in June, allowing more flexibility for certain groups of importers.
The US is set to reimpose its full range of sanctions in two stages on August 6 and November 4, forcing many foreign firms to cut off business with Iran.