GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran gave a glimpse on Wednesday into the scale of what may have been the biggest anti-government protests in the 40 year history of the Islamic Republic, with officials saying 200,000 people had taken part and a lawmaker saying 7,000 were arrested.
Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his strongest remarks since the unrest peaked, described the two weeks of violence as the work of a “very dangerous conspiracy”, while insisting it had since been completely put down.
Iran has given no official death toll for the unrest, but Amnesty International said earlier this week that it had documented the deaths of at least 143 protesters, a total Tehran has said it rejects.
A figure anywhere close to that would make it the deadliest anti-government unrest at least since the authorities put down a “Green Revolution” of election protests in 2009, and probably since the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself.
Full details of the unrest have been difficult to report from outside Iran, especially as the authorities have shut down the internet.
The violence comes as Iran’s economy has been hit by a tightening U.S. blockade that cut off its oil exports this year, and as mass demonstrations have also erupted in Iraq and Lebanon against governments built around prominent pro-Iran factions.
The disturbances began on Nov. 15 after the announcement of gasoline price hikes, but quickly turned political, with protesters demanding the removal of top leaders.
In response, the government has blamed “thugs” linked to exiles and the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“A deep, vast and very dangerous conspiracy that a lot of money had been spent on … was destroyed by the people,” Khamenei said in a meeting with members of the paramilitary Basij force which took part in the crackdown against protests, according to his official website.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said around 731 banks, 70 petrol stations and 140 government sites had been torched. More than 50 bases used by security forces were attacked, he said, in remarks published by the official IRNA news agency.
According to IRNA, Rahmani Fazli said up to 200,000 people took part nationwide in the unrest. Hossein Naqavi-Hosseini, a member of parliament’s national security committee, said about 7,000 people had been arrested, news website Entekhab reported.
The struggle of ordinary Iranians to make ends meet has become harder since last year when Washington quit an agreement to lift sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme. The U.S. administration says its aim is to force Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive deal.
There has been about a 20 million liter drop in daily gasoline consumption since the price hike, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. Daily consumption was about 98 million liters before the hike, the state fuel distribution company NIOPDC reported on Tuesday.
Combined with the rising inflation, growing unemployment, a slump in the rial and state corruption, Washington’s “maximum pressure” has caused Iran’s economy to deteriorate.
The government said the gasoline price rises of as much as 50% aim to raise around $2.55 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.
Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Paul Tait and Peter Graff