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Iranians Protest Across Country, Defying a Crackdown

December 31, 2017

When the protests started last Thursday in the city of Mashhad, demonstrators initially chanted slogans about the weak economy. As the protests spread, they have taken on a far more political cast.

Increasingly, they are being directed at Iran’s entire political establishment. Some demonstrators have even called for the death of President Rouhani and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The strength and volatility of the protests have caught Iranian politicians by surprise. Some have denounced them as “riots,” while others have acknowledged that the problems at the root of the widespread frustrations can no longer be ignored.

But it was clear that the demonstrators would be given no leeway. By Monday, a crackdown by the government and security services was building.

Riot police with water cannons were out in full force in Tehran, deploying at strategic points. Around 200 people have so far been arrested in the capital alone, one security official told Iran’s ISNA news agency. There were arrests in provincial towns as well.

Access to the Telegram messaging app and the Instagram photo and video sharing app continued to be blocked by the authorities, cutting of the main communication tool for protesters. Special software used to circumvent the government filters could still be downloaded easily.

Yet on Monday, as on other days, there were calls for protests online and on foreign-based Persian-language satellite channels. Some residents said they were determined to continue the demonstrations, and several hundred gathered at central squares.

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While the numbers of protesters in Tehran was small on Monday, the discontent was widespread. Many people on the streets complained about high prices, corruption and lack of change.

“We need to improve our economy, and the people’s voices must be heard,” said a 28-year-old woman, a piano teacher in Tehran, who asked not to be named out of fear of repercussions. “I’ll go out tonight again.”

Many youths in larger cities enthusiastically voted for Mr. Rouhani when he was re-elected in May, raising expectations among many in the reform camp. But since then even many of the president’s supporters say he has failed to fulfill his promises for improving an economy sorely hobbled by years of sanctions, corruption and mismanagement.

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Even the lifting of economic sanctions under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with large foreign powers including the United States has not unleashed the growth Mr. Rouhani had hoped for, as key sectors remain under the thumb of obscure powers, including religious foundations and the country’s Revolutionary Guards.

The poor economy especially affects Iran’s young people — more than 50 percent of the population is under 30, according to official statistics. Officially, youth unemployment is near 20 percent, and experts say it is really closer to 40 percent.

Those economic frustrations do not appear to have been offset by the greater social freedoms that the president has granted young people.

Under Mr. Rouhani, strict Islamic rules have been somewhat relaxed. Concerts have been allowed, and the morals police are largely off the streets. Illegal parties are usually no longer raided, although there have been exceptions.

But there is a wide gap between Iran’s changing and modernizing society and Iran’s leaders who insist on keeping up their anti-Western policies and state interpretation of Islam.

Mr. Rouhani’s decision not to include any women in his cabinet and his failure to put a relaxation of rules into law have made many bitter.

Mr. Rouhani has complained that power centers dominated by hard-liners have blocked many of his plans and decisions. Those obstacles to reform have penned up frustrations that are now being directed at the political and clerical establishment.

In Takestan, west of Tehran, “several people” were arrested after attacking a seminary, the Iranian news media reported. In Karaj, also close to Tehran, a gas station was burned, a witness reported.

Earlier on Monday, the semiofficial ILNA news agency quoted Hedayatollah Khademi, a representative for the town of Izeh, in Iran’s oil-rich but poor Khuzestan region, as saying two people had died there on Sunday night. He said the cause of death was not immediately known.

State television announced that 10 people had died on Sunday, but did not provide a location. “Some armed protesters tried to take over some police stations and military bases but faced serious resistance from security forces,” a presenter said.

“Illegal protests continued last night in several cities with less protesters participating, but they were as violent and turbulent, making residents of these cities concerned about their and their businesses’ security,” the state television report said.

The videos showed burned cars, fires and wreckages on the pavement. The report also showed a fire-brigade vehicle that was said to have been seized by protesters in Dorud, Lorestan Province, and killed two people in an accident.