Israel’s defense minister joined Iranian protesters speaking out against Tehran’s leaders for continuing to support militant groups abroad even as the country faces worsening economic woes.
“Citizens of Iran, where’d your money go?” Liberman wrote in a Persian-language post on his social media accounts, as protesters demonstrated in Tehran for a second straight day Tuesday.
Iranians took to the streets Monday following the collapse of the country’s currency amid the renewal of US sanctions over the regime’s nuclear program. Many of the protesters expressed anger at the regime’s financial support for Palestinian groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad as their own coffers drained.
“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 agreed to provide these 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.
“Even last month, when you were fighting for your bread in the streets of Iran, Qassem Soleimani was conducting a number of operations, including logistical missions for Syria at a cost of $70 million,” the defense minister wrote.
Soleimani is the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which oversees Iran’s military activities abroad and provides support to terror and paramilitary groups.
Liberman also congratulated Iranians on their national team’s “wonderful” World Cup performance. Iran was knocked out of the tournament Monday after a 1-1 tie to Portugal and star Cristiano Ronaldo despite an inspiring performance.
The statement in Persian from the defense minster came as protests in Iran entered a second day.
At Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, protesters, including many local shopkeepers, urged owners to close their shops as a strike in which shopkeepers were urged to shutter their businesses expanded. Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of people taking part in protests at the bazaar on Tuesday and hundreds more marching down streets of Tehran.
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.”
The protests have seen unusual scenes of demonstrators chanting against continued Iranian spending of billions of dollars on regional proxy wars and support for terrorist groups, which many say has meant less investment in the struggling economy at home.
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 president Bashar Assad’s government.
Monday’s protests in Tehran and around the country — including economically hard-hit cities like Kermanshah in western Iran — included shouts of “Death to Palestine,” “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon” and “Leave Syria and think of us.” Chants of “We don’t want the ayatollahs” and “Death to the dictator” were also heard at some rallies.
Police attempted to suppress the Monday protests in Tehran with tear gas, but early reports from Iran on Tuesday seem to indicate the demonstrations are expanding.
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.