Full internet access slowly returned across Iran over the weekend, ending a crackdown on protests the Islamic government labeled as an enemy plot. The clashes echoed ongoing, sporadic outbursts of frustration over repressive leadership throughout the Middle East.
Tens of thousands of people stormed the streets in 100 cities and towns after the Iranian government announced a 50 percent increase in gas prices on Nov. 15. Protesters burned down banks and gas stations, while others chanted, “Down with Khamenei,” referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In an attempt to control the protests, the government imposed a near-total nationwide internet shutdown for five days. It began to restore access late Thursday. But Iranians could only view some local government-controlled websites. The web blackout made it difficult to confirm the extent of the clashes, but Amnesty International reported that at least 106 people in 21 cities died. State media noted that authorities detained more than 1,000 protesters.
In a video that surfaced after the ban lifted, more than 100 people scattered as gunfire echoed from a police station in Shiraz, some 420 miles south of Tehran. Mana Mostatabi, the communications director at the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, described the blackout as scary. She could not reach her family back in Iran, sending several messages on WhatsApp that failed to deliver.
Mostatabi noted other countries have shut down internet access during protest movements. She called on governments to recognize internet access as an essential right. “It allows people to keep their governments accountable,” Mostatabi said. “It’s the scale of the crackdown we should be concerned about.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iranians in a tweet to send videos documenting the government’s response to the protests. “The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses,” he wrote.
The Iranian government said it raised fuel prices to generate about $2.55 billion a year for subsidies for 18 million low-income families. The nation’s economy took a hit after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran last year and imposed sanctions on the country. The value of Iranian currency dropped, and medical and food shortages became widespread.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the conflict on a plot by the “Zionists and Americans,” adding, “The Iranian people have again succeeded in a historic test and shown they will not let enemies benefit from the situation, even though they might have complaints about the country’s management.”
State media on Monday broadcast thousands of pro-government demonstrators chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Similar protests have hit other areas of the Middle East. Demonstrations erupted last month in Lebanon and have grown into calls for a new government. Last week, protesters in Beirut celebrated the suspension of a parliamentary session, which they said failed to address their demands.
A lack of jobs and basic services also sparked protests in Iraq. Many of the demonstrators blame Iran’s influence in their country for poor conditions. Some 700 pages of leaked documents published last week by The Intercept and The New York Times revealed the extent of Iran’s infiltration into Iraq’s political, economic, and religious affairs. The documents confirmed the presence of Iranian spies in Iraq and that Iran paid Iraqi agents working for the United States to switch sides.
“Ask any Iraqi, we know that the Iranians have the influence to pick the prime minister and meddle in religious parties,” 76-year-old Abu Hayder told Al-Jazeera. “One of the reasons for the protest is to stop Iran from intervening in our affairs.”