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Explainer: What Is Known About The Violent Iranian Protests Through The Lens Of An Internet Blackout?

Iranian protesters block a highway amid angry protests against a fuel price increase, in Isfahan on November 16.

A heavy Internet blackout in Iran has made it difficult to verify information about the violent protests that broke out in dozens of cities across Iran after a November 15 announcement that gasoline prices would be dramatically increased. Despite the online shutdown and lack of information due to media censorship, social media posts, official announcements, and state media reports give some clues about the situation of the past few days.

Why are Iranians protesting?

Protests erupted over the government's decision to significantly raise the price of the country's heavily subsidized gasoline -- without any warning and making the announcement overnight -- angering many Iranians who believe cheap fuel is a natural right.

The protests, which came amid a worsening of the economic situation due to crippling U.S. sanctions, quickly spread to some 100 cities and towns across the country where government buildings and public property -- including banks, gas stations, shops, ATMs, and several seminaries were set on fire.

Violent clashes were reported in many places, leaving an unknown number of dead (see below).

A scattering of reports indicates that some of the most violent attacks on protesters have occurred in the southern cities of Behbahan, Mahshahr, Bushehr, and Shiraz, was well as the mainly Kurdish towns of Javanrud and Marivan in western Iran.

In Tehran, the southwestern suburbs -- especially Shahryar -- are said to have been particularly violent.

Protesters largely chanted against the gas-price hike, which they say will make the poor even poorer.

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But the demonstrations quickly turned political with some of the protesters targeting the clerical establishment in their slogans, including chants of "Mullahs get lost," "Death to Khamenei," and "We do not want the Islamic republic." Posters of Khamenei or symbols associated with Iran's supreme leader were also spotted being set alight.

There was also loud criticism of Iran's support for its allies in the region, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Huthi rebels in Yemen.

The protests are considered the most serious since the December 2017-January 2018 anti-establishment demonstrations that spread to more than 80 cities. The current wave of protests also appear to be more violent that those countrywide rallies that started nearly two years ago.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili claimed on November 19 that "calm had been restored" in Iran one day after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) warned protesters with "decisive" action.

But some journalists and observers who managed to get online on November 18-19 despite the near total Internet shutdown said a heavy security presence was visible in some areas in the capital, Tehran, with one saying that "I passed through east Tehran and saw as many burnt-out banks as I had seen in my entire life."

How has the government responded?

The establishment has pushed back hard with force, deploying thousands of security forces, including members of the riot police and the IRGC across the country to quell the protests.

Security forces have reportedly used tear gas to disperse protesters and there are several reports -- many including photos or video -- of live ammunition being used against demonstrators and of shooting at protesters from the rooftops of government buildings.

A journalist in Tehran said earlier this week on Twitter that his cousin was among those killed. He said his relative was a young man who was fed up with state oppression and was shot in the forehead by security forces in Behbahan.

Authorities also responded quickly in shutting down the Internet on November 16 in an attempt to disrupt the free flow of information and prevent protesters from using social media to organize themselves and inform others, including the outside world, about their protests.

NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide Internet access, said on November 19 that connectivity in Iran had fallen to just 4 percent of ordinary levels, meaning nearly every Iranian is unable to go online.

Journalist Mohammad Mosaed, who managed to get online amid the shutdown, said on Twitter that he had used 42 different proxy sites to write a tweet.

"Knock knock! Hello Free World! I used 42 different [proxy sites] to write this! Millions of Iranians don't have [I]nternet. Can you hear us?" he wrote with the hashtag #Internet4Iran that Iranians have been using to protest the blackout.

Meanwhile, government spokesman Ali Rabiee said on November 19 that access to the Internet could be gradually restored "if we make sure that there's no abuse." He did not expand on what would constitute abuse.

How many casualties and detentions have there been?

Authorities said in the first days of the protest that some 1,000 people had been detained or arrested, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

Many reports suggest that far more arrests have been made, but security officials are not reporting on those numbers.

Though Iranian officials have reported the deaths of just 12 protesters and members of Iranian security forces, Amnesty International reported on November 19 that at least 106 protesters had been killed in just 21 cities, citing credible reports. Amnesty added that it believes the number of those killed is "much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed."

The UN Human Rights Office in Geneva said on November 19 it had reports that the number killed was in the dozens. "We are deeply concerned by reported violations of international norms and standards on the use of force, including the firing of live ammunition against demonstrators," UN rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

Officials and state media said that there were just four demonstrators among the 12 killed as well as an IRGC commander and two members of the Basij militia who were reportedly stabbed to death.

Amnesty International said it was "horrified" that so many protesters have been killed.

"We're alarmed that authorities have shut down the Internet to create an information blackout of their brutal crackdown. We're investigating," the rights group said on November 18.

What is the message of the protests?

Analysts say the protests highlight popular anger against the clerical establishment amid a serious worsening of the economy due to crippling sanctions imposed by the United States following its withdrawal last year from a 2015 international nuclear deal that limited Iran's sensitive nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Tehran-based journalist Hassan Fathi told RFE/RL that there's a deep "mistrust" between Iranians and their government, as a result he said many don't believe officials' comments that proceeds from the new price hike will be used to provide additional subsidies for 60 million people living in low-income families.

Saeed Bashirtash, a Brussels-based political activist, said many Iranians are angered by the establishment's "inefficacy," therefore suggesting the protests are likely to continue.

"I don't think these protests will stop; there could be a pause, but we're likely to see more protests every few months or every one or two years," Bashirtash told RFE/RL's Radio Farda, adding that the establishment is likely to be more and more "worn out."

"People believe that this establishment is not capable of running the country," he said.

Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said on Twitter that "the speed with which the [Iranian] leadership brought down its iron fist first indicates that it sees itself under siege [not just internally, but also regionally] & so it will brook no dissent."

Vaez added that the protests could lead both the Iranian establishment and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to dig in on their conflicting policies.

"Tehran, by seeing concessions as tantamount to weakness, and Washington by taking unrest as evidence [that its] max pressure policy could undermine or perhaps even collapse the Iranian government," Vaez said on Twitter on November 18.

Mohammad Zarghami, a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radia Farda, contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.