Iran Suppresses New Protests Amid Triple Threat of Worsening Crises

Iranian security forces are trying to suppress fresh anti-government protests in the country as the regime grapples with a series of mysterious explosions, continued American sanctions and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Security forces in the southwestern city of Behbahan fired tear gas Thursday to disperse demonstrations, Reuters reported, as the regime attempted to avoid a repetition of last year's protests that spread across the country and prompted a brutal crackdown by government forces that is thought to have killed some 1,500 people.

Videos posted to social media from Behbahan showed protesters chanting, "Fear not, fear not, we are in this together," while other reported chants against top regime officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and chants apparently critical of Iran funding of militant groups across the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the NetBlocks.org internet monitoring organization reported restrictions on web access in Behbahan and the surrounding province of Khuzestan—an oil-rich area bordering Iraq.

Reuters reported the heavy presence of security forces in other Iranian cities to guard against additional flare-ups of dissent.

News agency Tasnim said security forces had arrested "key elements of opposition groups... who were encouraging people to protest on Friday in the northeastern Khorasan Razavi province."

The situation in Iran is tense as the country continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic and sluggish economic performance. Since President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal—in 2018, re-imposed sanctions have further hampered the economy and hindered vital oil exports.

The coronavirus lockdown has made the situation even worse. Iran was one of the worst-hit nations early on in the pandemic, and though cases fell significantly in May authorities are now struggling to handle a second wave. President Hassan Rouhani warned Saturday that fresh lockdown measures will only exacerbate existing tensions.

Social media users inside and outside Iran have also been expressing their anger after the regime sentenced three men to death earlier this week for their involvement in November's protests.

The government appeared to throttle internet access on Tuesday to try and stem the spread of the #DontExecute and #StopExecutionsInIran hashtags online.

An Iranian police statement issued Friday warned that security forces would deal "decisively" with any fresh protests. Police urged Iranians to "vigilantly refrain from any gathering that could provide a pretext for the counter-revolutionary movement," and accused the country's "enemies" of agitation.

"The police force has an inherent and legal duty to deal decisively with these desperate moves," the statement said.

The Iranian regime has also been dealing with a series of mysterious explosions hitting sensitive military and industrial sites in recent weeks. Explosions have occurred at a key uranium enrichment facility at the Natanz nuclear site, an intercontinental ballistic missiles testing base, and on Thursday a shipyard linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Authorities are investigating the explosions, and state media and officials have insinuated that Israel or the U.S. may be behind the explosion at Natanz. Foreign ministry spokesperson Seyed Abbas Mousavi told reporters Monday: "If a regime or a government is involved in the Natanz incident, Iran will react decisively."

A group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs contacted the BBC shortly after the Natanz explosion to claim responsibility for the blast. The group said it is made up of dissident military and security officials that had been behind a number of attacks inside Iran that had been covered up by the regime.

The BBC noted that the previously-unknown Homeland Cheetahs could be a front for foreign intelligence agents seeking to undermine the regime and divert attention from foreign sabotage efforts.

Iran, protests, oil, sanctions, economy, explosions, coronavirus
Iranian protesters block a road during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the central city of Shiraz on November 16, 2019. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty