Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Iranians on Wednesday for showing “courage” in mass protests this week against their government and its economic policies, following the collapse of the country’s currency amid the renewal of US nuclear sanctions.
The protests, which began on Monday in Tehran and around the country — including economically hard-hit cities like Kermanshah in western Iran — featured shouts of “Death to Palestine,” “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon” and “Leave Syria and think of us,” highlighting Iran’s continued support for Palestinian groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad despite the country’s dire economic state. Chants of “We don’t want the ayatollahs” and “Death to the dictator” were also heard at some rallies.
Showcasing his soccer skills in a video posted on social media, Netanyahu drew a parallel between the demonstrations and the Iranian soccer team’s “impossible” feat on Monday, when it scored a 1-1 draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the FIFA World Cup, including blocking a penalty kick by the superstar. He added that he hoped to eventually see Iran play a match against Israel.
Stopping Ronaldo is “almost impossible,” said Netanyahu, “but the Iranian team just did the impossible.”
“To the Iranian people I say: You showed courage on the playing field, and today you showed the same courage in the streets of Iran,” the prime minister said in the video.
“Iran has many problems — air pollution, water scarcity, billions wasted on terror,” he added. “Can you imagine what would happen if the Iranian government, instead of wasting your money in Syria, in Yemen, and in unnecessary wars in the Middle East, would start investing it in solving these problems in Iran?
“That’s why I’ll never stop advocating for peace with the Iranian people,” he continued. “One day, I hope to watch Iran’s soccer team go head to head against Israel in a free Tehran. On that day, we’ll all be winners.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman made a similar appeal to the Iranian people in a Persian-language post to his social media accounts on Tuesday.
“Citizens of Iran, where’d your money go?” Liberman wrote. “As of today, despite the economic difficulties at home, the Iranian regime continues to invest billions in Syria, Hezbollah, [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq,” Liberman wrote, according to a Hebrew translation from his office.
He said Iran had agreed to provide those groups with $2.5 billion in 2018 alone, on top of the $14 billion he said the country has invested in Syria over the years.
Liberman similarly congratulated Iranians on their national team’s “wonderful” World Cup performance. Iran was knocked out of the tournament Monday after the tie with Portugal, despite an inspiring performance.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday sought to calm growing discontent at the tanking economy, assuring the public the country would be able to withstand the new sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump in the wake of the American exit from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year.
In speech broadcast live on state TV, Rouhani blamed the spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across the country a day earlier on “foreign media propaganda,” and accused the US of waging “an economic war” against Tehran.
“Even in the worst case, I promise that the basic needs of Iranians will be provided. We have enough sugar, wheat, and cooking oil. We have enough foreign currency to inject into the market,” Rouhani said according to the Reuters news agency.
The president accused Washington of waging a “psychological, economic, and political war” on Iran, and warned it would pay a high price for exiting the 2015 accord that lifted international sanctions in exchange for a scaling back of Tehran’s atomic program.
“Withdrawal was the worst decision he [Trump] could make. It was appalling. It hurt America’s global reputation,” he added. “The US cannot defeat our nation, our enemies are not able to get us to their knees.”
In recent years, Iran has provided financial aid to Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Tehran has poured a reported $6 billion into propping up Assad’s government.
At the end of last year, similar economic protests roiled Iran and spread to some 75 cities and towns, becoming the largest demonstrations in the country since its 2009 disputed presidential election. The protests in late December and early January saw at least 25 people killed and nearly 5,000 arrested.
Agencies contributed to this report.