DUBAI (Reuters) — Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called on Wednesday for the release of any unarmed and innocent people who were detained during protests against gasoline price hikes, after two weeks of violent clashes.
The unrest, which began on Nov. 15 after the government abruptly raised fuel prices by as much as 300%, spread to more than 100 cities and towns and turned political as young and working-class protesters demanded clerical leaders step down.
“Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed … should be released,” Rouhani said in a televised speech.
Iran’s clerical rulers have blamed “thugs” linked to its opponents in exile and the country’s main foreign foes – the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“The aim of our enemies was to endanger the existence of the Islamic republic by igniting riots in Iran … But America and the Zionist regime (Israel) lack political wisdom about Iran and Iranians,” said chief commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Hossein Salami in a televised speech.
Tehran has given no official death toll, but Amnesty International said on Monday it had documented the deaths of at least 208 protesters, making the disturbances the bloodiest since the 1979 uprising that swept Shi’ite clerics to power.
A lawmaker said last week that about 7,000 protesters had been arrested. The judiciary has rejected the figures.
The Intelligence Ministry said last week that at least eight people linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been arrested during the unrest, which was snuffed out last week by a security crackdown.
The struggle of ordinary Iranians to make ends meet has become harder since last year when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from Tehran’s nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have further crippled Iran’s oil-based economy.
“If America lifts the sanctions, we are ready to talk and negotiate, even at the level of heads of the 5+1 countries (major powers),” Rouhani said.
In reaction to Washington’s “maximum pressure”, Iran has gradually scaled back its nuclear commitments and has warned of further distancing from the pact if Europeans fail to shield Tehran’s economy from U.S. penalties.
Washington has ruled out lifting sanctions unless Iran further curbs its nuclear work, ends its ballistic missile programme and its regional proxy wars.
Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Andrew Heavens
Image: In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a public gathering at the city of Yazd, some 410 miles (680 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019 (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)