Protests – initially triggered by rising food prices that spread across major cities in Iran in recent weeks – intensified this past weekend with demonstrators in more than 40 locations on Sunday chanting anti-government slogans, according to a few reports. 

Unconfirmed reports said that at least four protesters were killed by security forces as economic demonstrations turned into anti-government political rallies. 

The protests emerged after a cut in state subsidies for wheat and other basic goods, such as cooking oil and dairy products, which the government branded as “fair redistribution.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi announced the economic measures last Monday in a televised interview, promising that “the prices of bread, medicine and petrol will not increase under any circumstances.” 

However, prices of certain flour-based foods have risen as much as 300%, causing distress for at least half of the population of the Islamic Republic which lives under the poverty line. 

Global wheat prices have been impacted by the war in Ukraine, which along with Russia, accounted for roughly 29% of the global wheat export market before the invasion began. 

Footage from the protests posted to social media showed people setting fire to images of the president as well as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many chanted “Death to Khamenei” and “Raisi, have some shame, let go of the country!”

Protesters also tore down banners featuring the two leaders and called for the return of Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the toppled Shah of Iran.

Iranian state media reported that calm was restored in areas of the country, whereas videos and posts on Twitter documented unrest in dozens of provinces in the West and North. One video from Shahrekord, southwest of Tehran, showed Iranian security forces violently cracking down on protesters, beating them and firing at them. Iran’s state news agency IRNA said on Friday that shops were “set on fire” in some cities, prompting arrests. 

NetBlocks, which monitors internet blockages, reported on Saturday a disruption in internet services in Iran that lasted for hours during the protests in some areas. This is a familiar tactic, as Iranian authorities are known for their attempt to prevent big gatherings by blocking user access to social media. 

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price commented on the protests in Iran on Twitter. 

“Brave Iranian protestors are standing up for their rights. The Iranian people have a right to hold their government accountable. We support their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression online and offline – without fear of violence and reprisal,” he said on Twitter.

Price’s tweet on Sunday was the first official reaction by the Biden administration to the ongoing protests.

The latest turmoil is adding pressure on Tehran’s leaders, who have been trying to mitigate the effect of U.S. sanctions on the country’s economy resulting from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. 

The COVID pandemic further crippled the Iranian economy. Last week, the rial fell to its lowest point against the U.S. dollar since the beginning of this year.

Against a dire economic backdrop, Tehran has been negotiating with world powers for a potential return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. Several reports have indicated that the deal’s revival could be imminent in early June, when an existing agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Tehran is set to expire.

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