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Iran: Over 100 Feared Dead in Protest Crackdown as Authorities Impose Internet Blackout

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In Iran, Amnesty International reports over 100 protesters have been killed in 21 cities by security forces during ongoing nationwide demonstrations sparked by a sudden hike in fuel prices last week. The death count may be much higher, the report warns, with some suggesting as many as 200 have been killed. According to Iranian state media, over 1,000 people have been arrested. On Thursday, Iran announced a rise in the cost of gas ranging from 50% to 300%. Soon after protests broke out on Sunday, Iran imposed an almost complete internet blackout, making it nearly impossible for protesters use social media to share images or information. From Washington, D.C., we speak with Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and the diplomatic correspondent for The Independent (U.K.).

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iran, where Amnesty International says security forces have killed at least 100 protesters during nationwide demonstrations sparked by a sudden hike in fuel prices last week. On Thursday, Iran announced a rise in the cost of gas ranging from 50% to 300%. Iranian state media says an additional 1,000 people have been arrested amid the protests. The Amnesty report also warns the death count may be much higher, with some suggesting as many as 200 have been killed.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, soon after the protests broke out, Iran imposed an almost complete internet blackout, making it nearly impossible for protesters to use social media to share images or information about the bloody crackdown. The civil society group NetBlocks, which monitors internet access worldwide, said Iran’s usage had decreased to 4% of its normal level.

For more, we go directly to Washington, D.C., to speak with the Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi. She is the diplomatic correspondent for The Independent, her most recent piece headlined “As US weighs in on Iran protests, critics highlight American culpability for economic crisis.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Negar. Can you explain how these protests broke out and also how you’re learning about what’s happening, with an almost complete internet shutdown?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

So, as you said, the sudden increase in gas prices on Thursday night basically ignited the protests on Friday. We have to remember that fuel prices are heavily subsidized, have been heavily subsidized in Iran. And still, with the almost 300% increase, it’s much lower, relatively lower, compared to world prices. And this has been an economic problem for the government, the high amount of money that they’ve been spending on subsidies. And the government has been struggling to somehow manage this. But it seems like they basically rolled it out or mismanaged it in the worst way possible and ignited these nationwide protests, in almost a hundred cities across the country.

The protests got pretty violent soon, and the crackdown. From the very few images that are coming out that we see, there’s a very brutal crackdown happening from security forces. There are videos of security forces directly shooting at protesters, severely beating protesters and just pushing back. And the government is also complaining that dozens of banks and properties, gas stations have been vandalized, set on fire, and that there are leaders and coordinators that are being basically inspired and this is ignited by the enemies from the outside.

But basically what this comes down to is a grievance, an ongoing grievance, a not just economic grievance, but also a political grievance, that Iranians have had. These protests are not new. We saw very similar protests, widespread protests, at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, also in dozens of cities across the country. And this is just, in a way, a continuation of that. And it is combined with the fact that there’s high levels of corruption in different factions of the Iranian political system and a lot of mismanagement of the resources. It’s a, basically, rich country when it comes to oil and gas and natural resources, and people just don’t feel like that that is trickling down to the economy to the ordinary and average person. And then, combine that also with crippling economic sanctions from the United States, and it just creates an economic crisis that is hurting average Iranians, especially working and middle classes, the most vulnerable segments of the society. And especially when they see that high corruption within government officials and feel like the ordinary people are the ones who are taking the pressure of sanctions, of the mismanagement, of this corruption, that just adds to the anger and makes this — basically turns this into a political fight, and not just economic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the impact of this internet shutdown on the ability of people to communicate and to organize their protests? We’re seeing increasingly governments resort to this. We saw India do it in Kashmir. Egypt has tried it against its protesters. What’s the impact from what you can tell?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Well, it’s extraordinary. I mean, people still organize. People still gather on the street. Let’s not forget, in 1979, Iranians launched a revolution without any internet or anything back then. So, it’s not difficult for people to organize, to, you know, just tell each other where to meet at what time and things. And also remember that phone lines are still open, so people can communicate over the phone. So, as far as organizing, I don’t think it’s had a tremendous effect, although it’s easier to organize over social media, and that’s what the young people had been using over recent years. So, that’s definitely one of the reasons the internet is shut down.

But the other reason, or maybe the more important reason, is for the images and the videos and the photos to not get out or not be published on social media, because that’s how foreign-based media, basically, and reporters are going to see exactly what’s happening on the ground, the brutality, the severeness of the violence. And some images have made their way out. They’re pretty brutal, as I said. But we are not really getting a full picture, at least a visual picture, of what’s happening on the ground because of this almost total internet shutdown.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the places in Iran where the protest is most intense and why it’s happening there, even more so than in Tehran.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Well, Tehran — I speak to mostly people in Tehran. In many neighborhoods in Tehran, it’s fairly common. Also, there’s a very heavy security atmosphere. Major cities, other cities, like Mashhad, I’ve heard the same thing, that most neighborhoods are quiet but very securitized. It seems like the unrest is more in the suburbs, in the lower-income suburbs of Tehran, in southern Tehran. In some other major cities like Shiraz, Shiraz had seen a lot of unrest and also casualties. The number of people killed and injured in Shiraz, and arrested also, seems to be high. And then, smaller cities and towns across the country, also two provinces, I have to mention, in the south and southwest, the province of Khuzestan and the province of Kurdistan, both border areas — both have a high number of religious minorities, ethnic minorities, that have long been, you know, subject of discrimination and also economic disadvantage when it comes to the central government. So, there’s a lot of different layers of grievances in these areas.

And also, Khuzestan, one of the two provinces where it’s the center of the unrest and repression, Khuzestan is actually the province where all the oil sits. So it’s an oil-rich province. It’s basically where the country gets all of its resources or main source of income from. But ironically, the population that lives in that province doesn’t see much of the economic benefit of what — basically, the natural resources they’re sitting on, so it adds to the anger and to the grievance, combined with that ethnic and religious and, basically, minority discrimination that they have been facing for years.

AMY GOODMAN: Immediately, we see Trump weighing in, supporting the protesters. If you could talk about the significance of that? Of course, you compare it to what’s happening on Hong Kong, whatever deal he made with the Chinese leader not to criticize Chinese response to the Hong Kong protesters, of course, very different in Iran right now.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Honestly, I don’t know why President Trump hasn’t tweeted about Iran. He’s been usually very quick to tweet about anything happening in Iran and protests. In a way, I think it just shows that this has no significance to him, especially now that he has all his attention on the impeachment hearing. Nothing has came from President Trump, not even a simple statement. The only statement we’ve heard was a short one from the White House press secretary, and also, of course, Secretary Pompeo has weighed in multiple times, and some U.S. ambassadors have also weighed in.

But then, at the same time, like I argued in my piece — and I’ve spoken to critics, even senior aides in Congress on the Democratic side — it’s just not seen as a very genuine message of support or sympathy when it comes from the Trump administration, because this administration is basically part of the reason of the economic misery. The pullout from the Iran deal, basically, President Trump’s unilateral exit from the nuclear deal, while Iran was committed to the agreement, and then the reimposition of these economic sanctions on Iran are one of the reasons that Iranians are suffering economically, of course, combined with their own government’s mismanagement and corruption, everything that I mentioned. But it’s just that U.S. officials have actually acknowledged, and sometimes even proudly boasted about, how U.S. sanctions are hurting Iran economically. So, coming out and basically showing this message of support and sympathy for the people of Iran, who are basically suffering economically, doesn’t seem very genuine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, an unprecedented leak of secret intelligence documents from inside the Iranian government has shed new light on how Iran has taken control of much of the Iraqi government in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The leak to The Intercept includes 700 pages of intelligence documents from 2014, 2015. In one document, Iraq’s current Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is described as having a, quote, “special relationship with Iran.” The documents also reveal a number of Iraqis who once worked with the CIA and went on to work with Iranian intelligence and expose detailed information about the CIA’s activity in Iraq. I’m wondering your response.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: It’s incredible. I mean, the details of the report are very incredible. But it’s not news that Iran has had and has been building all this influence and networks in Iraq. A big portion of that is actually public and very out there. And it just shows part of the grand strategy, or maybe the lack, of U.S. government in the region following the invasion of Iraq, and basically trying for all these years to add to influence or control parts of the power structure there, while Iran, right — the next-door neighbor right there, has been basically doing the same thing, even more successfully. And it’s not just in Iraq. Iran’s network of influence, of proxies is basically across the region, in multiple countries across the region. And it has given Iran an advantage, in some ways, when it comes to any kind of confrontation, which I think, again, goes back to the issue of President Trump basically unraveling this only diplomatic channel that was open with Iran, and basically bringing us to the brink of a conflict or this impasse of a situation where there’s no path open for diplomacy. Iran’s influence in the region has not decreased, if not increased. And it seems like Iran’s, as they call, malign behavior and adventures in the region have not changed. So, I’m not sure what the goal is here for the U.S. administration and for the president, for President Trump, but it just doesn’t seem like they’re moving towards a very positive destination, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow these issues in Iran. And for people to see our interview with Murtaza Hussain, one of the authors of the report in The Intercept, in this massive, unprecedented leak of Iranian documents, you can go to democracynow.org. Negar Mortazavi, we want to thank you so much or being with us, Iranian-American journalist, diplomatic correspondent for The Independent, based in Washington, D.C. Of course, we’ll continue to follow developments in Iran.

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