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Iran blames deadly unrest on outsiders, including US

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

People walk past a bank that was burned during recent protests, in Shahriar, Iran, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Protests over government-set gasoline prices rising struck at least 100 cities and towns, spiraling into violence that saw banks, stores and police stations attacked and burned. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

DUBAI – As a cold rain fell on a suburb of Iran’s capital on Wednesday, women swallowed by black chadors and men in green military-style jackets walked alongside the flag-draped coffin of a Revolutionary Guard member, one of over 100 people reported to be killed in protests across the country.

A low wail rose among the women as they passed the burned remains of buildings set ablaze in the chaos that began Friday. The mourners did not blame the Guard member’s death on Iran’s government, which increased gasoline prices amid widespread economic woes as Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers collapses.

Instead, those at the funeral blamed the United States.

“America, shame on you for your conspiracies,” they cried. “The blood of our youth is dripping from your claws!"

From allegations of foreigners in demonstrations to claims of outside forces being involved, Iran’s government has been blaming everyone else for the violence unleashed after it raised the minimum price for gasoline by 50%.

Those claims have been amplified by state-controlled TV and radio channels, the only broadcasters allowed, after interference on illegal but widely tolerated satellite dishes has grown worse and the internet has been blocked since Saturday.

Iran has yet to offer any definitive figures of those killed, injured or arrested in the unrest. Amnesty International on Tuesday said it believed at least 106 people had been killed, with the death toll possibly above 200. Iran’s mission to the United Nations disputed the figure as “baseless allegations,” although a U.N. office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”

Iranian reports suggested the unrest led to nearly a half-billion dollars in damage and losses for the country.

The internet outage and communication disruption made it difficult for Iranians to speak to the outside world. The number of online videos of the unrest similarly have dried up, a result of the internet blockage.

“That the internet is still shut down only signals that despite the heavy use of violence, the security forces haven’t been able to successfully squash the unrest,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

In the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari alleged Wednesday that the U.S., Israel, France and Saudi Arabia all supported the demonstrations. The newspaper run by Shariatmadari, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described “retaliation” as a legitimate right for Iran.

“It is possible to bring them to their knees through imposing heavy financial and military damage,” the newspaper wrote. “The enemies have lived in a glass house and their sensitive and strategic military and economy centers are easily accessible.”

It did not offer any suggestion on how the retaliation could occur, although Iran enjoys the support of proxy forces across the wider Middle East and increasingly has confronted the U.S. this summer amid the collapse of the nuclear deal a year after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the 2015 accord.

The protests come as demonstrations also are taking place in Iraq and Lebanon, two nations key to Iran’s regional influence. In Syria, another country supported by Tehran, Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets near Damascus on Wednesday, attacks that a monitoring group said killed at least 23 people.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned the Swiss ambassador, America’s representative in Tehran, to complain about what it described as U.S. intervention in the Islamic Republic’s affairs.

The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, which had been in the Arabian Sea for months over those tensions, sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday, the U.S. Navy said.

In Tehran’s suburbs, people described the assailants in the unrest as moving quickly, something mentioned by others. Gas stations and banks, both private and state-owned, were seriously damaged.

“Everything happened in seconds,” homemaker Maliheh Qorani said in Tehran’s western Tehransar neighborhood. “Dozens of young and organized men smashed the windows of the bank and threw (gasoline bombs) into the building.”

A heavy police presence could be seen in neighborhoods most recently affected by protests. However, people appeared to be more comfortable with coming out on the street than they had been since the unrest began.

Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration said it pushed for the gasoline price increase to pay for more aid to the poor, declared victory Wednesday in the unrest, blaming “the Zionists and Americans” for the violence.

“Our people have come out victorious in different incidents and in the face of enemies' plots,” Rouhani said.

Blaming foreigners for domestic woes is a decades-old tradition in Iran, dating back even to the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the months before his abdication and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the shah and his government blamed Soviet-backed rebels for the unrest then. Others saw the hand of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Palestinian militants or Israel.

The same could be heard at the funeral for Morteza Ebrahimi, a young member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. Protesters shot and stabbed Ebrahimi in the unrest and he died in a car that had been commandeered to take him to the hospital, his friends told the hard-line news website Raja News.

A funeral procession passed through the streets of the Tehran suburb of Shahriar, his casket riding on the back of a truck. Posters of Ebrahimi, bearded and smiling, sat pinned against garlands of flowers.

A truck in front bore a banner with the faces of Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reading: “Protecting Islamic and revolutionary values, as well as praising martyrs, is the highest work.” White-turbaned Shiite clerics in robes followed the crowd as it passed a building that was nearly razed in the unrest.

"These people have gathered here to say with a loud voice to the world's arrogance and hypocrites and those who wish to deal a blow to our ruling system to understand that the blood of martyrs has been spilled for this country,” said Mohammad Reza Rezaei, a man who accompanied the funeral procession. “One of those martyrs is Ebrahimi who stood up for this system until the last drop of his blood.”

He added: “We are here to announce that we will resist also until the last drop of our blood and support the ruling system."