Iranians gather around a charred police station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 17, 2019. - President Hassan Rouhani warned  that riot-hit Iran could not allow "insecurity" after two days of unrest killed two people and saw authorities arrest dozens and restrict internet access. Rouhani defended the controversial petrol price hike that triggered the protests -- a project which the government says will finance social welfare spending amid a sharp economic downturn (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran says security forces may act against gas price protests
01:57 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Iranians are no strangers to protests. Rarely, however, has the government’s response seemed quite as brutal as this.

A little over two weeks ago, protests were sparked by eyewatering gas price hikes, and morphed into nationwide anti-government demonstrations.

The government acted quickly, pulling the plug on the internet and unleashing what Amnesty International described as a “bloody clampdown.” The human rights organization estimated Monday that at least 208 protesters had been killed in 21 cities, citing “credible reports.”

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign affairs did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the Amnesty report.

A precise death toll is impossible for those outside Iran’s government to confirm. Citing opposition groups, international rights organizations and local journalists, The New York Times has reported that at least 180, and possibly 450 or more, people could have been killed during the four-day period beginning November 15.

To put both estimates into context, during 2009’s monthslong protests over contested election results, activists said that 72 people were killed (an estimate more than double the government’s official tally). And after a weekend of violent protests that December, the official death tally was eight.

Iran’s government did not respond to a request for comment regarding the death toll, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said previously that “several” people died in the protests.

Digital darkness

For the past century, Iranians have demonstrated on all kinds of political, social and economic issues.

Dr. Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at British think tank Chatham House, tells CNN that “protesting is effectively part of Iranian culture.”

Now, experts say that the long history of protest appears to have been met with a level of brutality that enters new territory, even by the Islamic republic’s hardline standards.

“This is a regime that’s been repressive for four decades,” said Vakil. “But this last round (of crackdowns) seems like they’ve crossed a red line” in terms of their swift “vengeance and brutality.”

The government’s weeklong internet blackout – which has now been lifted, according to Netblocks, a non-governmental organization that monitors internet governance – has also made reporting on the crackdown all the more difficult.

Amid the digital darkness, some eyewitness accounts of violence have been trickling out in the media.

But it’s hard to “thread it all together,” said Vakil. She said that the media was “still playing catch-up” with the facts.

Many activists are reluctant to share their stories in this extreme “climate of fear,” she added.

Families of victims have also been warned not to speak to the media or even hold funerals for loved ones, according to Amnesty International.

What ordinary Iranians say

The perspectives of the protesters and ordinary civilians has been difficult to ascertain.

Initially, images posted on social media showed rioters storming banks, petrol stations and government buildings and setting them ablaze. All of which has fed into the governments message that they “became too violent” and officials had “no choice but to respond this way,” said Vakil.

On Sunday, Iran said it arrested 25 protesters and seized three firearms in the country’s western Kurdistan province, according to semi-official Fars News Agency. Police described the protesters as involved in “riots,” Fars reported.

Pro-government rallies in Tehran have also been aired live by the state broadcaster Press TV. But some Iranian civilians told CNN that it was the government’s outsized response to protests that created new problems for daily life. Though the government shifted some essential online functions to the country’s National Information Network (NIN), a centralized national intranet, general connectivity was crippled for days.

Saman, who is only using his first name for security reasons, age 33, told CNN that the internet blackout disrupted negotiations with businesses abroad. “We didn’t want to tell them that we have problems in Iran so they may be scared to deal with us,” he said.

A woman who asked to be identified only as Sarah for security reasons also described the internet blackout as a “nightmare” for work and day-to-day communications. She added that she thought that the government should acknowledge protesters’ discontent, going forward.

“I think the government can say that at least they’ve heard the voices of protesters,” she told CNN. “And instead of suppressing the protesters they can listen to them and try to solve the – try to find a solution for their demands and their problems,” she said.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader who spearheaded the 2009 Green Movement in Iran and has been under house arrest since 2011, compared the country’s current supreme leader to the Shah, who was overthrown during the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and called on the government to respond to protesters’ demands.

“Whining and tapping into global war is not a convincing response to the people, and these illusions cannot heal the deep and dangerous wounds inflicted,” he said.

For now, the protests appear to have eased. But the country remains on shaky footing, its economy severely hit by US sanctions which saw Iran’s currency tank, prices soar, and medical and food shortages grow widespread.

CNN’s Sam Kiley and Nada Altaher contributed to this report.