FILE - A man holds a smartphone connected to a Wifi network without internet access, at an office in the Iranian capital Tehran, Nov. 17, 2019.
FILE - A man holds a smartphone connected to a Wifi network without internet access, at an office in the Iranian capital Tehran, Nov. 17, 2019.

A major internet outage in Iran aimed at suppressing anti-government protests has extended into a sixth day, with access levels rising slightly as authorities said they reconnected several regions to the web.

In a series of Thursday tweets, London-based internet monitoring group NetBlocks said Iran’s almost-total internet shutdown began to ease after 113 hours, with the national connectivity rate rising from 5% to 10%, and later to 15% by early Friday local time. Connectivity had plummeted to about 5% late Saturday and mostly remained at that level until Thursday afternoon.

Iranian state news agencies reported that authorities were gradually restoring internet access in several regions, including the southern province of Hormozgan, which is home to the major port of Bandar Abbas.

Speaking to reporters in Tehran, Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, said the state body would make a decision later Thursday about whether to end the internet shutdown, which has further damaged an economy already weakened by U.S. sanctions. He expressed hope the outage would end “within the next two days.”

Shutdown imposed

Iranian authorities imposed the shutdown to stop opposition activists from communicating and posting online images of nationwide protests that erupted last Friday in response to the government’s abrupt 50% increase in the subsidized price of gasoline.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran has become “so unstable” that its government shut down internet access to try to stop people from talking about “tremendous violence” in the country.

“They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!” Trump added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed by tweeting an appeal, in Farsi and English, for Iranians to send images and information about the government’s violent crackdown on the protests to the Trump administration. He said Iranians could do so via the @RFJ_Farsi_Bot Telegram channel.

The protests had spread to more than 50 urban centers in Iran by Saturday, according to images received from Iran and verified by VOA Persian.

 

Anti-government Protests in at least 54 Iranian Cities

Many Iranians see the gas price increase as putting a further burden on their wallets at a time of worsening economic conditions. Iran’s currency has slumped versus the dollar, while inflation and unemployment have soared in the past year, as the U.S. has tightened economic sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran to stop perceived malign behaviors. Government corruption and mismanagement also have contributed to the malaise.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the protests on his foreign “enemies” as well as members of Iran’s exiled opposition movements. In a Sunday statement, he accused the “sinister and malicious” family of Iran’s deposed Pahlavi monarchy and the “evil and criminal hypocrites,” a reference to the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK), of using social networks to encourage violent acts by “thugs” and “hooligans.”

Iran’s exiled crown prince Reza Pahlavi speaks to VOA Persian at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, Nov. 21, 2019.

In a Thursday interview with VOA Persian, Iran’s exiled crown prince Reza Pahlavi responded to the criticism by saying the nation’s Islamist rulers, who ousted his father, Mohammad Reza Shah, from power 40 years ago, always blame others for the country’s problems.

“Iranians have been protesting around the country and losing their lives as they resist the government. Khamenei should be more concerned about his own people, whose wishes have been ignored for 40 years, than about what I say or do,” Pahlavi said.

Meeting with U.S. lawmakers

Pahlavi was speaking on a visit to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, where he said he was meeting U.S. lawmakers to discuss the recent unrest in Iran.

FILE - An internet cafe manager works on his computer as a man talks on his cell phone, in Tehran, Iran, July 25, 2019.
FILE - An internet cafe manager works on his computer as a man talks on his cell phone, in Tehran, Iran, July 25, 2019.

In a Thursday statement, Iran’s most powerful military branch, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said it had restored calm to the country after suppressing the protests. State TV showed more images of pro-government rallies around the country, as it has done for the past few days.

State media have reported the arrests of at least 1,000 people whom authorities accused of engaging in violent confrontations with security personnel, damaging businesses and looting.

Many of the anti-government protests seen in videos from the first few days of the unrest were peaceful.

Iran’s ongoing internet outage made it difficult to verify whether the demonstrations had ended. VOA Persian did not receive any reports Thursday of protests in Iran.

In a photo taken Nov. 18, 2019, and released by the Iranian Students' News Agency, ISNA, people walk past buildings which burned during protests that followed the authorities' decision to raise gasoline prices, in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran.
In a photo taken Nov. 18, 2019, and released by the Iranian Students' News Agency, ISNA, people walk past buildings which burned during protests that followed the authorities' decision to raise gasoline prices, in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran.

Iran’s government has not released figures on the numbers of people killed and wounded in the protests, besides saying several security personnel were among the dead.

British rights group Amnesty International said it received information indicating Iranian security forces had killed at least 106 protesters by Tuesday. The group said it based the figure on eyewitness accounts, social media videos and reports of exiled Iranian human rights activists.

On Wednesday, Iran’s mission to the United Nations dismissed reports of more than 100 fatalities in the unrest as “baseless.”

VOA Persian has independently confirmed the killings of at least seven protesters in shootings by Iranian security forces on Saturday.

The killings of protesters have drawn statements of concern from the United States, the U.N. human rights agency OHCHR and the EU.

U.S. criticism

In a late Wednesday tweet, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated U.S. criticism of Iran’s crackdown on the protests and expressed solidarity with the Iranian people.

“As Iranians take to the streets in protest, the Ayatollahs in Tehran continue to use violence and imprisonment to oppress their people. The United States’ message is clear: the American people stand with the people of Iran,” Pence said.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.  Kambiz Tavana contributed to this report.