Widespread protests lead to deaths in separate incidents as anger over Mahsa Amini transforms into wider protest against the regime
Iranian police patrol as people pass by closed shops in Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday. As many as 15 people are believed to have been shot dead during protests on Wednesday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
https://www.theguardian.com-Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor
As many as 15 people have been shot dead in Iran, including members of the security forces and a nine-year-old boy, in separate incidents as the country experienced one of its most serious and widespread nights of protests of the past nine weeks.
On the anniversary of the 2019 uprising, state news agencies blamed terrorists on two motorcycles for the killing of seven people in a shopping centre in the southern city of Izeh Khuzesta. However, protesters said members of the Basij militia force ran amok, killing among others a nine-year-old boy sitting in a car with his father. State news agencies said two volunteer Basij patrolmen were among the dead, and 10 were injured.
A further five people were killed in the Isfahan area, including security forces, in a separate shooting. Reports of further deaths in Kurdistan took the night’s total death toll to 15.
Internal Iranian news agencies followed the government line that unknown anti-government forces or Islamic State terrorists were responsible, but witnesses claimed unarmed civilians were shot.
The total number of deaths during the latest protests has spiralled to 348, according to Harana, a human rights agency, though the figures are impossible to verify. In at least three cities, seminaries were set alight.
Government news agencies said the killings might be a sign that the protests were turning into an armed insurrection. An investigation of the bullets in the bodies of those shot dead is to be held and there is now likely to be a massive propaganda battle in which the government will argue the protests are the seedbed for the “Syrianisation” of Iran, and a collapse of public order.
Videos posted on social media showed shops closed in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar as protesters chanted anti-government slogans. However, the state claims there is no enthusiasm for these strikes and that organised gangs were harassing hard pressed business owners into pulling down their shutters.
The regime’s difficulty, acknowledged by many reformist politicians and academics inside Iran, is that many protesters have long ago stopped taking their news from what they regard as utterly discredited official sources, and instead rely either on internal social media or international Farsi-speaking satellite broadcast channels, such as BBC Persian or Iran International.
At least five protesters have now been officially sentenced to death, according to the media centre for the judiciary, one for allegedly setting fire to a government building.
The protests began over the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, but have since transformed into a wider protest against the regime, that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has likened to a revolution.
Speaking in Bali on Wednesday, Macron said: “Something that has changed [on the ground in Iran] is this revolution of women, young people of Iran, defending universal values like gender equality. It’s important to commend the courage and legitimacy of this fight.”
Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahiidi, has claimed several alleged French intelligence agents have been arrested. He said: “People of other nationalities were arrested in the riots, some of whom played a big role. There were elements from the French intelligence agency and they will be dealt with according to the law.”
Seven French nationals were arrested, possibly a response to Macron meeting with exiled Iranians opposed to the regime.
France is one of a group of western nations preparing to vote to censure Iran at a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna this week. The motion condemns Iran over its failure to cooperate with UN nuclear inspectors over its nuclear program, saying Iran’s uranium stockpile is now 18 times the limit set under the initial 20115 nuclear agreement.
The US deputy envoy to the IAEA, Louis Bono, told the board on Wednesday the production of uranium with 60% enrichment by Iran had no valid peaceful justification.
The IAEA director, Raphael Grossi, said on Wednesday the now six-month absence of UN inspectors meant there was now a mass of activity about which the IAEA did not know. He still hopes a visit to Tehran can be agreed. Iran has threatened to cancel any visit if the censure motion is passed.
However, the west appears to be rethinking its entire strategy towards Iran, something Iran’s political establishment is only starting to realise. The internal protests, and evidence that Iran has been supplying Russia with drones to help attack Ukraine, has left advocates of a revival of the nuclear deal struggling for political footing. So far criticism within Iran of the decision to take Russia’s side over Ukraine, given the inevitable wider diplomatic impact, has not been forceful enough to challenge hardliners’ grip on foreign policy.