DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Hard-liners in Iran threatened violent protesters Tuesday with executions by hanging as sporadic demonstrations still gripped pockets of the country over government-set gasoline prices rising, unrest a United Nations agency fears may have killed “a significant number of people.”
It remains unclear how many people have been arrested, injured or killed in the protests that began Friday and quickly spread across at least 100 cities and towns in Iran. Authorities shut down internet access to the outside world Saturday, an outage that persisted Monday across the nation of 80 million people.
Officials also haven’t given any public accounting for the overall toll of the violence. State media showed video of burned Qurans at one mosque in the suburbs of the capital, Tehran, as well as pro-government rallies.
Absent though in the coverage was an acknowledgement of what sparked the demonstrations in the first place. Gasoline prices rising represents yet another burden on Iranians who have suffered through a painful currency collapse, following President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, and the re-imposition of crippling U.S. sanctions.
Relatively moderate President Rouhani has promised that the fuel price rise will be used to fund subsidies for low-income families. But the decision has unleashed widespread anger among Iranians.
Maryam Kazemi, a 29-year-old accountant in the southern Tehran suburb of Khaniabad, said that the hefty hike in fuel prices was “putting pressure on ordinary people.”
“It was a bad decision at a bad time. The economic situation has long been difficult for people and Rouhani unexpectedly implemented the decision on fuel,” she said.
An article published Tuesday in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper suggested executions loomed for those who led violent protests. Though the state-owned newspaper has a small circulation, its managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari was personally appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Some reports say that the judiciary considers execution by hanging for the riot leaders a definite punishment,” Kahyan said, without elaborating.
It also repeated an allegation that leaders of the demonstrations came from abroad. Khamenei on Sunday specifically named those aligned with the family of Iran’s late shah, ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The MEK calls for the overthrow of Iran’s government and enjoys the support of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Police and security forces remained on the streets of Tehran on Tuesday, but in lower numbers. Traffic also appeared to be flowing better, as part of the demonstrations saw people abandon their cars on major roadways.
However, authorities still postponed four soccer matches in different parts of the country scheduled for Thursday and Friday, the Iranian weekend, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported. With the internet outage and phone services spotty, it remained difficult to know the situation in some parts of the country.
State television aired footage of pro-government rallies in the cities of Shahr-e Kord and Tabriz, where demonstrators blamed the unrest on foreign enemies while shouting: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” One TV report included images of what was described as a masked protester armed with what appeared to be an assault rifle.
Online footage of the protests, published before the internet shutdown, included the sounds of gunfire and images of gravely wounded people. Authorities have acknowledged five deaths without offering nationwide statistics.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about reports of live ammunition being used against demonstrators. It also urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully.
“We are especially alarmed that the use of live ammunition has allegedly caused a significant number of deaths across the country,” spokesman Rupert Colville said in a statement.
Colville added that it has been “extremely difficult” to verify the overall death toll.
The protests were prompted by a plunging economy. Many Iranians have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial, since Trump withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions. The rial now trades at over 123,000 to $1, compared to 32,000 to $1 at the time the deal took effect.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves despite decades of economic woes since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Gasoline in the country remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping 50% to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter. That’s 12 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.59 by comparison.
The U.N. rights office addressed that background of economic anger across Iran in its statement.
“Protests of this nature and on this scale are an indication of deep-rooted and often well-founded grievances that cannot simply be brushed aside,” Colville said.
Those grievances could be heard in Khaniabad and elsewhere around Tehran. Several described taking part in peaceful protests later hijacked by violent masked demonstrators. Others heard gunfire.
“We were out to protest the gasoline price on Saturday,” said Reza Nobari, a 33-year-old car mechanic. “Suddenly a group of six or seven who covered their faces appeared together and started to break the windows of a bank. This wasn’t what we were out for.”
Jafar Abbasi, a 58-year-old who runs a dairy, said he saw another group of people who arrived in a van smash the windows of nearby shops.
“Some looted the place and some other quickly disappeared,” he said.
He added: “This is all the result of Rouhani’s decision to increase the price of fuel.”