Shops that were destroyed during demonstrations against gasoline price hikes, are pictured on November 20, 2019 in Shahriar, west of Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran Vows ‘Firm Response’ to Countries behind Protests

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of funding hostile online activities during the latest wave of protests

Javad Javidnia, Iran’s deputy prosecutor for cyberspace affairs, accused Saudi Arabia on Sunday of significantly directing and funding the riots in Iranian cities last week, which were reportedly sparked by the government’s decision on a steep hike in the price of gasoline.

The price hike – a 50% increase for the first 60 liters per month and 200% for any additional fuel – was announced on November 16, and the next day, mass protests broke out in Tehran and other cities.

In a speech in the central province of Isfahan, Javidnia said three active bases of the opposition People’s Mujahedin of Iran – in Albania, Saudi Arabia and “hegemonic states” – were active during the recent turmoil in Iran.

He added that Saudi Arabia was responsible for a significant portion of the funding for the campaign against Iran and that cyberspace was “the first line of defense” for the country.

“The enemy organized its ranks to wage war on Iran via the internet and when Iran cut off internet service, the enemy received a big blow. If cyberspace remains hostile, the unrest will continue,” Javidnia added.

Sulaiman al-Oqiley, a Saudi analyst, writer, and board member of the Saudi Political Science Association, told The Media Line that the Iranian system was to blame its internal crises on the outside world, when “in fact, these problems are caused by the system itself, not only in Iran but also in some Arab states that Tehran controls and about which it brags of its hegemony over their political decisions, like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.”

Al-Oqiley said that Iran’s accusations against Saudi Arabia were a way for Iran to evade the burden of its responsibilities to provide a decent life for the Iranian people, “in addition to the Iranian regime’s responsibility for the deterioration of the economic and social as well as political situations in the country.”

Tehran found it easier to blame others rather than face its own reality, he said.

Wisam al-Nasser, a Syrian analyst and social media expert, told The Media Line that the Iranian accusations against Saudi Arabia were normal; all dictatorial regimes tried to explain anti-government unrest as a conspiracy: “If the protests were happening in Saudi Arabia instead, we would have heard similar accusations against Iran. But the important thing here is the fact that the Iranian government has completely cut off communication between Tehran and the outside world to prevent any coverage of the situation as well as any potential escalation resulting from communication within the country.”

Al-Nasser said that social media networks opened ways for countries to intervene in each other’s affairs and to attack them electronically, and that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been involved in this area for a while. “Several accounts of Saudi and Emirati activists were closed on Twitter and other social media networks because of this.”

He said that social media networks had played a direct, active and important role in social protests movements over the past 10 years, especially in countries that were controlled by dictatorships, which worked to close down dissent in the public sphere.

“Social media networks became the only way for people to express their protest and anger as well as discuss the matter with others,” al-Nasser said. “In Iran, these networks were the only outlet for protesters to test the possibility of collective action with their peers around the country. These networks became an exclusive outlet to broadcast what’s happening in the country to the outside world in order to try to influence world public opinion, because local media outlets were incapable of communicating the truth.”

However, he stressed that while social media networks played an important role in helping people communicate with each other and show what’s happening in their countries, it was not a direct cause of the protests in the first place. “The role of these networks is sometimes exaggerated; major economic or political factors are usually behind popular demonstrations.”

Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, announced on Saturday that the security services would soon disclose new information on the main elements inciting riots and their relations with forces outside the country. At the same time, the Iranian government vowed a “firm response” to countries in the region that were proven to be behind the recent wave of protests in Iran.

The internal unrest came as the Iranian government was grappling with protests in both Iraq and Lebanon, countries where it projects influence through military and political proxies.

Hisham Jaber, a Lebanese political analyst and security expert, told The Media Line that Iran wouldn’t respond militarily to the countries that were involved in the recent wave of protests in Iran. Rather, it would encourage elements hostile to the governments in these countries, through its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia, itself.

Jaber said that the Iranian accusations were normal, as it was known that countries hostile to the Iranian government would work to exploit the [popular] movement and achieve political gains.

“It comes as part of the psychological warfare between the Iranian axis which extends to Iraq and Lebanon on the one hand, and the Saudi axis on the other hand, which is very important and effective in pressuring the other side,” Jaber said.

Last week, the White House condemned the Iranian government for using “lethal force” against protesters. Estimates of the number of people killed in the protests vary widely: Iranian authorities have claimed that 12 protesters and three security personnel were killed, while Amnesty International reported that more than 115 protesters were killed; other sources have said that about 200 people were killed in the protests.

Security services have arrested scores of people and severely curtailed access to the internet, particularly through social media sites, in a bid to hamper efforts to organize.

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