LONDON/WASHINGTON: Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards deployed forces on Wednesday to three provinces to put down an eruption of anti-regime unrest as US President Donald Trump assured the demonstrators of support “at a suitable time.”
The protests, that have rattled the clerical leadership and left 21 people dead, began last week out of frustration over economic hardships suffered by the youth and working class. Now they have evolved into a rising against the powers and privileges of a remote elite, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Defying threats from the judiciary of execution if convicted of rioting, protests resumed after nightfall with hundreds hitting the streets of Malayer in Hamadan province chanting: “People are begging, the supreme leader is acting like God!”
Videos carried by social media showed protesters in the northern town of Nowshahr shouting “death to the dictator” — an apparent reference to Khamenei.
Iranian opposition leaders in the UK are “disgusted” at the failure of British politicians, including Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn to condemn regime brutality as the death toll continues to climb seven days after protests began in Iran.
“Both the prime minister and the opposition party here have stayed completely silent when Iranian youth are being slaughtered in the streets of Iran,” said Laila Jazayeri, director of the Association of Anglo/Iranian Women in the UK.
Three members of Iran’s intelligence forces were killed in clashes in the western city of Piranshahr on Wednesday, Mehr news agency reported, citing a statement from the Revolutionary Guards.
The three died “in a fight with anti-revolutionary elements,” the statement read.
The statement did not say if the fight was related to the anti-government protests in Iran.
In a sign of official concern about the resilience of the protests, the Revolutionary Guards commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said he had dispatched forces to Hamadan, Isfahan and Lorestan provinces to tackle “the new sedition.”
In a state-sponsored show of force aimed at countering the outpouring of dissent, thousands of Iranians also took part in pro-regime rallies in several cities on Wednesday morning.
State television broadcast live footage of rallies in cities across the country, where marchers waved Iranian flags and portraits of Khamenei, Iran’s paramount leader since 1989.
They accused the US, Israel and Britain of inciting protests, shouting, “The seditionist rioters should be executed!”
Trump, who has sought to isolate the Tehran leadership, reversing the conciliatory approach of predecessor Barack Obama, said Washington would throw its support behind the protesters at a suitable time.
“Such respect for 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 latest of a series of tweets on Iran’s turmoil.
The protests seem to be spontaneous, without a clear leader, cropping up in working-class neighborhoods and smaller cities, but the movement seems to be gaining traction among the educated middle class and activists who spearheaded the 2009 revolt.
More than 100 Iranian woman activists voiced support for a new uprising in a statement on Wednesday. Several prominent Iranian lawyers, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, urged Tehran to respect people’s right to freedom of assembly and expression, guaranteed under the constitution.
Some labor unions as well as minority Kurdish opposition groups have also thrown their weight behind the protests.
In Geneva, the UN human rights chief urged Iran to rein in security forces to avoid further violence and respect the right of protesters to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the loss of life and called for the security forces and demonstrators to avoid further violence, his spokesman said in a statement.
Germany’s government said protests “deserve our respect.” A spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin is closely watching developments in the country.