The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran warns protesters against unrest, stages counter-demonstrations

People attend a pro-government rally in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Friday. (Wana News Agency/Via Reuters)
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Iran’s military Friday warned anti-government protesters against continued unrest, vowing to confront “plots” by enemy forces as demonstrators, angry over the recent death of a woman in police custody, clashed with security forces across the country.

“These desperate actions are part of the evil strategy of the enemy to weaken the Islamic regime,” the army said Friday, Reuters reported. It went on to say that the military would “confront the enemies’ various plots in order to ensure security and peace for the people who are being unjustly assaulted.”

Demonstrators at several state-organized rallies on Friday called for perpetrators of alleged violence against security forces to be executed. Iranian state television reported Friday that 35 protesters and policemen had been killed since the demonstrations began a week ago, the Associated Press reported.

The unrest was sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an Kurdish woman who was detained by Iran’s “morality police” while visiting the capital, Tehran. She was allegedly held for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women — a charge her family has denied in interviews with local media. An initial police report claimed that Amini fell into a coma while in custody, but her family and other activists said she appeared to have been beaten.

As protests spread, Amini became a symbol for many Iranians grappling with poverty, unemployment, political repression, and everyday indignities in a country ruled by conservative clerics.

Iran’s government throttled internet and cellular service and blocked WhatsApp and Instagram. But images and footage of extraordinary scenes — such as women defiantly removing their veils, burning headscarves and cutting off their hair — have emerged on social media, captivating the public both in Iran and abroad.

Other videos showed men and women protesting together, chanting “bread, work and freedom!” Some burned images of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shouting “Death to the dictator!”

“What especially stands out is how it’s women and youth-led, specifically by Iranian Generation Z,” said Holly Dagres, an Iran analyst and a nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. “They have the same needs and wants of youth everywhere, the freedom to express themselves and be themselves, and have little in common with the geriatric leadership of the Islamic Republic.”

The Treasury Department on Friday issued new guidelines saying it would broaden internet access and cloud-sharing technologies in Iran, some of which are subject to U.S. sanctions.

The move aims to “advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people, to provide them greater access to digital communications to counter the Iranian government’s censorship,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet.

“The escalating crackdown requires a coordinated international response in terms of both pressuring Iran to refrain from using excessive force and exploring avenues for accountability,” said Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups say they have documented hundreds of arrests and injuries, as well as authorities abusing women detainees. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 Iranian journalists had been arrested, including one of the first to report on Amini’s hospitalization.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said at the United Nations in New York this week that her death must be “steadfastly” investigated, the AP reported. At a news conference on the sidelines of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Raisi said he contacted Amini’s family.

“Only a credible investigation” by the government could ease tensions, said Far. But, she said, “judging based on the long track record of not being transparent, not investigating abuses,” there is little hope among Iranians for government accountability.