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Government Supporters Rally As UN Prepares To Meet On Iran

Pro-government demonstrators march in support of the regime after the weekly Friday Prayers in Tehran on January 5.

Pro-government demonstrators have taken to the streets of Iran for a third day ahead of a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting about deadly antigovernment protests in the country during the past week.

Reports in Western media about antigovernment demonstrations in Iran have decreased since Tehran blocked key social media used by the protesters to spread video of the earlier unrest.

But RFE/RL obtained credible reports on January 5 from sources in Iran about ongoing demonstrations against Iran's clerical rulers in Tehran, Shiraz, Dezful, Sanandaj, Tabriz, Ahvaz, Nowshahr, and Aligudarz -- the strongest challenge to the country's Islamic leadership in almost a decade.

Video footage from the city of Mashhad, where the protests began on December 28, showed hundreds of protesters chanting "Mullahs get lost" in response to claims on January 3 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that the demonstrations were over.

State media has reported that despite the statement, the IRGC is continuing to deploy security forces in different parts of the country.

At least 22 people have been killed in clashes between the antigovernment demonstrators and security forces and more than 1,000 protesters have reportedly been arrested.

State TV showed footage of pro-government rallies on January 5 in cities including Tabriz and Kerman, marking the third day of such demonstrations.

While leading Friday Prayers in Tehran, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami said he backed the government's blocking of social media in a bid to disrupt the spread of information about the protests, noting that when the government blocked social media, "the riots stopped."

"The nation does not support a social network whose key is in the hand of the United States," he said, adding that he believed anyone who burned Iran's flag should be sentenced to death.

Diplomatic Battle

The UN Security Council was due to meet later on January 5 at the behest of the United States and over strong objections raised by Russia.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for the meeting earlier this week in what she said was a bid to "amplify" the message of the antigovernment protesters, while Russia said such a meeting would be "harmful and destructive."

"The UN must speak out" in support of the protesters, Haley said. "This is a matter of fundamental human rights for the Iranian people, but it is also a matter of international peace and security."

Ryabkov was quoted on January 5 by Interfax as saying that "the United States continues to pursue the policy of open and covert intervention in the internal affairs of other nations, doing it shamelessly and blatantly.”

Ryabkov said a day earlier that Russia believes any bid by the United States to try to increase UN sanctions on Iran over the protests would be "illegitimate."

Iran's UN ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, has also objected to what he characterized as meddling in Iran's internal affairs by the United States. He had no immediate response to the decision to hold the meeting.

Iranian pro-government supporters hold posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.
Iranian pro-government supporters hold posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.

The protests, which began over economic hardships suffered by Iran's youth and working class, have evolved into an uprising against the powers and privileges of what some critics call a remote elite, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on January 4 downplayed the number of protesters who have participated in the marches over the past week.

"The relevant authorities have reported that there have been, at most, 42,000 people, and that is not a very high number," the minister was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

Iran's army chief asserted on January 4 that local police forces had mostly quelled the unrest, but he said army troops remain ready to intervene if needed.

"This blind sedition was so small that a portion of the police force was able to nip it in the bud [but] you can rest assured that your comrades in the Islamic republic's army would be ready to confront the dupes of the Great Satan [United States]," Major General Abdolrahim Musavi said.

Plea For Nonviolence

Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said the protests were continuing, however, despite such assertions, and she urged her countrymen to press on with their demonstrations in interviews published on January 4.

"People are still in the streets. Even if they go home, their anger would remain, and the protests would resurface months or years later," Ebadi said in an interview with Reuters.

"People should stop paying electricity, water, and gas bills. They should not pay their tax. They should withdraw their money from banks," said Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

She told Reuters Iran's security forces should also ignore orders to repress the protesters.

"I call on my dear children in the police forces and the Revolutionary Guards to put down their guns and do not kill their own brothers and sisters. If the country's situation improves, you would also benefit from it," said Ebadi, who lives in exile in London.

"If the government has not listened to you for 38 years, your role has come to ignore what the government says to you now," Ebadi was quoted as saying in the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

The U.S. State Department on January 4 said that it condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the deaths and the arrests of protesters over the past week and vowed to punish government and security officials responsible for any violence against demonstrators.

"We support these legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people, and call on the government to allow the free exchange of ideas and information," the statement said.

In addition, the United States imposed sanctions on January 4 against five Iranian firms alleged to have been working on an illegal ballistic-missile program.

"These sanctions target key entities involved in Iran's ballistic missile program, which the Iranian regime prioritizes over the economic well-being of the Iranian people," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International called on Iranian authorities to investigate reports that security forces have "unlawfully" used firearms against unarmed protesters and to protect hundreds of detainees from torture and other ill-treatment.

"Reports of the use of firearms against unarmed protesters by security forces are deeply troubling and would contravene Iran's human rights obligations under international law," Philip Luther, Amnesty International's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on January 4.

"The Iranian government must promptly launch an effective and independent investigation into the killings and other reports of excessive or unnecessary force, and bring all those responsible for human rights violations to justice," he added.

Trump Chimes In

Even before the UN debate was scheduled, the protests had set off a diplomatic battle between the governments of Iran and the United States, with Tehran accusing Washington of stepping up "its acts of intervention in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs under the pretext of providing support for sporadic protests."

Trump has issued Twitter statements several times in support of the protesters, including a tweet on January 3 that said he respected "the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government."

"You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!" Trump wrote in the post.

Iranian Prosecutor-General Hojatoleslam Mohammad Jafar Montazeri on January 4 identified what he said were U.S. and Israeli operatives who he claimed were the "masterminds" behind the unrest.

State-run IRNA news service quoted Montazeri as saying U.S. national Michael Andrea along with an "officer affiliated with [Israel's] Mossad spy agency" were "in charge" of the plot.

Montazeri described the American as being a "former CIA member" and said bitter regional rival Saudi Arabia "paid for all the expenses." Semiofficial Mehr news agency identified the man as "Michael D'Andrea."

The New York Times in June quoted current and former intelligence officials as saying that D'Andrea had been appointed to run the CIA's Iran operations.

Neither Montazeri's allegations nor the Times report could be independently confirmed.

The antigovernment protests, which started in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, began with crowds in cities across Iran airing grievances over the rising cost of food and other necessities, but quickly spread to expressions of anger against the government.

Early on January 3, Tehran organized a massive counterdemonstration with thousands of people pouring into the streets to voice their support for the government.

Thousands rallied again on January 4 in support of the government in various towns and cities, including in Mashhad.

While many of the antigovernment protesters had voiced opposition to Khamenei, with some chanting "death to the dictator," the counterdemonstrators chanted their support for the supreme leader, saying "The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader" and "We will not leave our leader alone."

With reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari, Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and Press TV