Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei doubled down Wednesday on his unsupported accusations that the uprising rocking Iran is orchestrated by the country’s foreign enemies, as authorities further tightened internet restrictions to make it harder for protesters to spread information about the violent government crackdown.
Meanwhile, strikes by shopkeepers spread to Iran’s second-most populous city, Mashhad, according to social-media posts. The city is a stronghold for the country’s hard-liners, including Mr. Khamenei and President
Mashhad shopkeepers joined strikes under way in the capital Tehran and other cities across the country.
The death toll from the uprising has increased to at least 201, including 23 minors, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights nonprofit.
Demonstrations began nearly four weeks ago when Iranians erupted in anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody of the morality police, which had detained her for allegedly not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code. The protest movement initially coalesced around calls to abolish the mandatory Islamic veil known as the hijab, but quickly expanded into calls to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian leadership has shown no sign that it is willing to compromise.
Mr. Khamenei repeated allegations that the “scattered riots” were designed by Iran’s enemies, likely referring to the U.S. and Israel as in the past.
“As long as the nation is on the path of the Islamic system and religious values, these hostilities will continue and the only way to cure it is to resist,” Mr. Khamenei said following a meeting with the administrative Expediency Discernment Council, according to his website.
“The country’s officials should also be careful that such issues do not prevent them from their main responsibilities and duties in the domestic and foreign arenas,” Mr. Khamenei said.
Following mass arrests in recent weeks, dozens of lawyers gathered in protest Wednesday in front of Iran’s Central Bar association, where security forces used tear gas to disperse them, according to social-media posts.
Large street protests have subsided and the uprising has moved into a new phase marked by protests inside and around universities, and throngs of women, often as young as teenagers, marching in the streets without the Islamic veil. Workers and merchants have joined the protesters by organizing strikes in the oil sector, a pillar of the country’s economy, and the bazaars, which have historically been bellwethers of public opinion.
A large-scale strike in Mashhad could have severe consequences for the government. Home to a massive shrine commemorating a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Mashhad is one of the holiest cities for the world’s Shiite Muslims, who Iran claims to champion, and provides a key political and financial basis of support for the leadership.
Mr. Khamenei was born in Mashhad and studied at the city’s main Islamic seminary. Mr. Raisi won last year’s election largely because of his broad support base in Mashhad, where until 2019 he ran the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, the main economic driver in the city. The foundation employs thousands of people and owns property throughout the city.
Authorities have restricted internet access since the eruption of the protests last month, and on Wednesday the state cut off most if not all mobile broadband connections in the capital Tehran, according to Amin Sabeti, a London-based Iranian cyber activist. Mobile users were forced to use national mobile connections, which are part of the so-called National Internet that allows access only to Iran-based websites. Residents were still able to use the internet on landline connections at home, but with the use of virtual private networks, several residents said.
The disruption in internet connections started around 9:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday, according to the London-based internet monitor NetBlocks.
The Iranian parliament earlier this year passed legislation that placed Iran’s internet infrastructure under control of an agency controlled by the armed forces. The bill also put into official government policy the deliberate slowdown, or throttling, of foreign websites, which don’t comply with Iranian rules including surveillance of Iranian users and censorship of online spaces.
Mobile internet connections appeared to have been completely shut off in Kurdistan, where Ms. Amini was from and which has seen large protests since her death, according to relatives of residents there.
The Iran Human Rights nonprofit warned that a bloody crackdown was likely imminent in Sanandaj, the main city of the Kurdistan region.
In Brussels on Wednesday, European Union officials agreed to impose sanctions on Iran’s morality police and senior security officials involved in the crackdown on protesters, diplomats said. The decision will be formally signed off on Monday when EU foreign ministers meet.
The sanctions, against 16 Iranian people and entities, will be the broadest the EU has imposed on Iranian officials since 2013 and comes after similar measures from the U.K., the U.S. and Canada.
However, for now, there will be no sanctions against Iran for allegedly supplying drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine. Two European diplomats said the EU would likely take action over the drones, but that is likely to be discussed when the bloc considers a new round of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.
Speaking Wednesday, European Commission President
Ursula von der Leyen
urged the Iranian regime to end the repression against protesters.
“The violence must stop. Women must be able to choose,” she said in a speech to EU diplomats. “This shocking violence cannot stay unanswered. It’s time to sanction those responsible for this repression.”
—Laurence Norman contribute to this article.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]
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