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Iran anticipates renewed protests amid social media shutdown

Iranian news agency ILNA reported that authorities have restricted mobile internet access in several provinces.
Crowd fills a street in Tehran on Nov. 16 to protest against a gas price hike.
Crowd fills a street in Tehran on Nov. 16 to protest against a gas price hike.Wana News Agency / Reuters

DUBAI — Iran was bracing for a renewed wave of protests Thursday, one day after authorities reportedly disrupted mobile internet access across the country.

Iran's authorities have restricted mobile internet access in several provinces, an Iranian news agency reported on Wednesday, following a trend of social media posts and messages from relatives of those killed in unrest last month calling for more protests and ceremonies to commemorate the dead.

State media, meanwhile, said intelligence ministry agents had seized a cache of 126 mostly U.S.-made guns smuggled to the central city of Isfahan from abroad.

The protests were initially sparked in November by hikes in gasoline prices but demonstrators quickly expanded their demands to cover calls for more political freedom and other issues.

The government, which launched the bloodiest crackdown on demonstrators in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, blamed foreign enemies for stoking tensions.

An official denied any order by the authorities to block the internet, which was shut down for about a week in the November unrest. A news agency also cited mobile operators saying their services had not been disrupted.

The semi-official news agency ILNA quoted an informed source at the Communications and Information Technology Ministry as saying mobile internet access to overseas sites was blocked by "security authorities" in Alborz, Kurdestan and Zanjan provinces in central and western Iran and Fars in the south.

"According to this source, it is possible that more provinces will be affected by the shutdown of mobile international connectivity," Reuters reported the ILNA as saying.

Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said on Twitter: "Confirmed: Evidence of mobile internet disruption in parts of #Iran ...real-time network data show two distinct drops in connectivity this morning amid reports of regional outages; incident ongoing."

The shutdown appeared to be spreading.

"I just checked myself and asked a friend, and the internet is off on our mobiles," a resident in Ahvaz, the capital of the oil-producing Khuzestan province, told Reuters.

But a communications ministry spokesman denied there was an order to shut down the internet. "No such order has been issued by the judiciary or other relevant authorities. The Fake News are at work," Jamal Hadian said in a Twitter post.

Iran's three mobile operators also denied experiencing any internet disruptions, the YJC news agency reported.

An Iranian woman uses her cellphone on Dec. 23 in the capital Tehran ATTA KENARE / AFP - Getty Images

In Alborz province, one of the areas affected by the shutdown, authorities this week arrested the parents of a young man who was shot dead during the protests, after pressuring them to call off a commemoration for their son scheduled for Thursday, citing concerns it could create unrest.

The weapons seized in Isfahan included assault rifles, handguns and pellet guns, the state news agency IRNA said. "Most of the weapons carry USA badges and are American-made," it added.

The internet blockage made it difficult for protesters to post videos on social media to generate support and also to obtain reliable reports on the extent of the unrest.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran's communications minister last month for his role in "widescale internet censorship," a reference to the nationwide shutdown.

Iran has blamed "thugs" linked to exiles and foreign foes — the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia — for stirring up unrest through social media.

During the protests, hundreds of banks and public buildings were attacked and damaged.