US sanctions Iranian minister for internet shutdown during fuel protests

Connectivity surged on Saturday after US action against Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi

FILE - In this Sunday, July 7, 2019 photo, Iran's telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi is interviewed by The Associated Press at his office in Tehran, Iran. The U.S. Treasury on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, sanctioned Jahromi over a dayslong internet shutdown in Iran by authorities amid protests and unrest that followed government-set gasoline prices sharply rising. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
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Internet connectivity in Iran surged on Saturday, a day after the United States imposed sanctions on an Iranian minister over a week-long shutdown imposed by the regime as part of a crackdown on nationwide protests against higher fuel prices.

Iranian officials said on Thursday that internet connections were being gradually restored, suggesting that the unrest had been quelled, and on Saturday connectivity suddenly reached 60 per cent by afternoon, according to the internet advocacy group NetBlocks.

Announcing sanctions on Iranian Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi on Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington wished to show its solidarity with those protesting against the Iranian regime.

“Today, the United States is sanctioning the Iranian official who helped shut down the internet for the Iranian people,” a statement from Mr Pompeo said.

“While Iranian regime leaders maintain access to the internet and social media accounts for themselves and their cronies, they deprive their people of these basic tools of expression and communication,” the statement added. “This hypocrisy simultaneously supports a corrupt religious mafia and oppresses the Iranian people.”

The sanctions imposed on Mr Azari-Jahromi would block any of his property under US jurisdiction, the Treasury Department said.

Iran has accused the US and other countries for instigating the protests, which broke out on November 15 in several provincial towns after the government announced petrol price hikes of at least 50 per cent. The unrest spread to 100 cities and towns and quickly turned political with protesters demanding top officials step down. The internet was cut off the following day as Iran sent out security forces to subdue the protests.

Amnesty International said on Saturday raised its estimate of the protester death toll to at least 115. "We believe the real number is much higher and are continuing to investigate," the rights group said. Iran's official death toll is five.

Amnesty said the highest number of deaths was in the western province of Kermanshah, where at least 30 people were killed.

"All the forces of the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij [paramilitary], the Intelligence Ministry, police, and the army took part actively in controlling the situation," Parviz Tavassolizadeh, the head of the judiciary in Kermanshah, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

About 1,000 people have been arrested nationwide, according to Iranian officials, including  scores accused of leading them.

"Approximately 100 leaders, heads and main figures of the recent unrest were identified and arrested in various parts of the country by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps," judiciry spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said on Friday.

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri on Saturday warned regional countries of unspecified dire consequences if it was proven that they meddled to stoke the unrest, the semi-official news agency Fars reported.

"Some countries in the region should know that they will be not have an easy life in the region if clues are found that show they intervened to create unrest in Iran," Mr Jahangiri was quoted as saying.

The deputy head of the Basij militia described the protests as a "world war" against the Iranian regime.

"A full-fledged world war against the system and the revolution was born and fortunately the child died at the moment of birth," Brig Gen Salar Abnoosh said.

He said interrogations had revealed a "coalition of evil" of "Zionists, America and Saudi Arabia" was behind the "sedition", according to comments reported by the semi-official news agency ISNA.

Meanwhile, a border crossing with Iraq that was closed at Iran's request has been reopened, Iraqi officials said.

The Shalamcheh crossing near the southern Iraqi city of Basra was shut to travellers after a request from Iran last Saturday, a security source and an Iranian diplomat said at the time. The closure did not affect goods or trade.

The Iraqi border ports commission announced the reopening on Saturday but did not give a reason for the decision.