Iranians take to the streets to mark 2019 protests in fresh rebuff to ruling clerics

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Iranians went on strike in several cities on Tuesday to commemorate the 2019 protests over fuel prices, a display of dissent that was crushed by security forces in the bloodiest crackdown in the history of the Islamic republic.

The move will add to pressure on Iran’s clerical rulers, who have been battling two months of nationwide protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.

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In 2019, Reuters reported 1,500 people were killed in that wave of unrest which began over fuel price hikes but quickly turned political. Iranian authorities dismissed that death toll.

In the latest protests, the rights activist HRANA news agency said 344 people have been killed, including 52 minors. It also reported 40 members of the security forces being killed, in addition to 15,820 people being arrested.

The demonstrations have turned into a legitimacy crisis for the clerical establishment, which took power after the 1979 revolution toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular monarch allied with the West.

Videos shared on social media showed strikes and gatherings in several cities and towns. Footage shared by the widely-followed activist 1500Tasvir Twitter account showed closed shops at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. One video, unverifiable by Reuters, showed shopkeepers chanting: “This is a bloody year when (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei shall be overthrown.”

Bazaar merchants are traditionally the biggest financial ally of the clerical establishment.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA confirmed the strike in Tehran’s Bazaar, but said shopkeepers were forced by “rioters” to close down their shops.

Up to 19 of the thousands of people arrested face charges which carry the death penalty in the cities of Tehran and nearby Karaj, according to state media reports.

Protests overshadow nuclear talks

Iran, which said Amini’s death was due to pre-existing conditions, has accused its enemies, including the United States, of fomenting the unrest to destabilize the country.

Amini’s death, after her arrest for allegedly flouting Iran’s strict dress code imposed on women, has drawn international criticism.

On Monday, the European Union imposed additional sanctions over the crackdown on protests and French President Emmanuel Macron characterized the unrest as a revolution.

Iran and the United States have been trying for months to salvage Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that Washington exited in 2018, before reimposing tough sanctions.

But the protest crackdown and the sale of drones to Russia have turned the United States’ focus away from reviving the pact, Washington’s special envoy for Iran Robert Malley said.

Support for the protest movement is pouring in from lawyers, students, doctors, actors and athletes seeking a new political order. Famous retired footballer Ali Daei said on Instagram that he refused FIFA’s invitation to attend the World Cup in Qatar.

“In these difficult days when most of us are unwell, I have given a negative response to FIFA’s invitation and prefer to stay alongside my compatriots and share my condolences to families who have recently lost their loved ones,” Daei said.

A video on 1500Tasvir showed people running down a street in Tehran’s western neighborhood of Shahrak Gharb after several gunshots could be heard.

In the southern city of Marvdasht, social media accounts reported that security forces fired teargas and shot pellet bullets to disperse protesters.

The 1500Tasvir account also showed a video of people at a metro shouting “death to the dictator”, a slogan referring to Khamenei. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the videos.

In the central city of Isfahan, steel workers joined the strike. 1500Tasvir said the workers were chanting “enough with promises, our table is empty.”

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