Iranians rally en masse against 'rioting'

Tehran (AFP) – Supporters of Iran’s government poured into central Tehran on Monday for a massive rally to condemn days of “rioting” that the Islamic republic blames on its foreign foes.

Waving the Iranian flag and banners that read “Death to America”, they descended on Enghelab (Revolution) Square from all directions.

In a shock announcement on November 15, Iran raised the price of petrol by up to 200 percent, triggering nationwide protests in a country whose economy has been battered by US sanctions.

Officials say the demonstrations turned violent because of the intervention of “thugs” backed by royalists and Iran’s arch-enemies — the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The square filled up quickly on Monday with young and old, including clerics carrying portraits of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The rally was addressed by Major General Hossein Salami, head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which helped to put down the unrest.

“This war is over,” Salami told the huge crowd that covered the square and spilled into side streets.

“You have defeated the power of the arrogance,” he said, referring to America.

“The enemy has collapsed and today it is disappointed because of the glory of your presence. The coup de grace has been delivered.”

Long-fraught links between Tehran and Washington plunged to a new low in May last year when the US unilaterally withdrew from an international accord that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

– ‘Revolutionary people’ –

In his speech, the Guards commander issued a warning for the United States and its allies Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“You have received a strong slap in the face,” Salami told them. “If you cross our red lines, we will destroy you.”

Chants of “Death to the USA” and “Death to Israel” rang out as some in the crowd set fire to American flags.

Ahead of the rally, Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the “interference of foreign countries” in the street violence.

“We recommend they watch the rallies taking place these days in our country so they realise who the real people are in our country,” spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

An SMS had been sent to citizens on Sunday evening urging them to attend the demonstration, amid an ongoing internet outage imposed during the unrest.

The message called on “Tehran’s wise and revolutionary people” to take part and condemn “American-Israeli riots”.

– Internet outage –

The near-total internet blackout came at the height of the street unrest in a step seen as aimed at curbing the spread of videos of the violence.

Connectivity has returned to much of the country except for its mobile telephone networks, said NetBlocks, a site that monitors internet disruptions.

NetBlocks said connectivity on Irancell was running at 95 percent, but two other key mobile service providers — MCI and RighTel — were down at one and 21 percent respectively.

The unrest erupted hours after a midnight announcement that the price of petrol would be immediately raised by 50 percent for the first 60 litres and 200 percent for any extra fuel after that each month.

President Hassan Rouhani said the proceeds would allow his government to provide welfare payments to the needy.

During the violence, dozens of banks, petrol pumps and police stations were torched across Iran.

Officials have confirmed five people were killed, but the death toll from clashes with security forces is thought to be much higher.

The United Nations said it feared that dozens died, while Amnesty International said more than 100 were believed to have been killed.

Authorities say they arrested 180 ringleaders.

The total number of people detained remains unclear, but the UN human rights office put it at more than 1,000 last Tuesday.

Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi, deputy commander in chief of the Guards, warned Sunday that Iran would severely punish “mercenaries” arrested over the violence.

Iran has blamed the unrest on the Pahlavi royal family ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and armed opposition group the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, which it considers a “terrorist” cult.