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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Rouhani acknowledges Iranian discontent as protests continue” was written by Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent, for The Guardian on Sunday 31st December 2017 19.09 UTC

Iranian authorities have threatened a crackdown against protesters and scrambled to block social media apps allegedly used to incite unrest as the biggest demonstrations in nearly a decade continued for a fourth day.

People across Iran took to the streets again on Sunday evening in defiance of a heavy presence of riot police and state warnings to stay away.

The demonstrations began over economic grievances on Thursday but have since taken on a political dimension, with unprecedented calls for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in his first comments about the protests, aired on national television on Sunday night, said “people have the right to criticise”, but said the authorities would not tolerate antisocial behaviour. He said criticism was “different from violence and destroying public properties”.

Officials said they arrested at least 200 people during demonstrations in central Tehran on Saturday. It was not clear how many were arrested in the provinces, which saw protests on a bigger scale than the capital. Two protesters were killed in western Iran on Saturday.

The protests are the biggest in Iran since 2009, when demonstrators called for the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president after what they regarded as his fraudulent re-election.

Videos posted on social media from Saturday night in Tehran showed protesters taking down large banners depicting the ayatollah’s image, in acts of resistance rarely seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

One video showed demonstrators taking down an image of the leader of Iran’s powerful Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, who is spearheading Iran’s involvement in regional affairs, particularly the war in Syria.

Rouhani, urging the nation to be vigilant, acknowledged that people were unhappy about the state of economy, corruption and a lack of transparency. “People are allowed under the constitution to criticise or even protest but […] in a way that at the end they lead to a better situation in the country for the people,” he said.

Condemning the US president, Donald Trump, who has voiced support for the protests, Rouhani said: “This gentleman who today sympathises with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called us a terrorist nation. The one who has opposed the Iranian nation from his head to his toe has no right to express sympathy for people of Iran.”

On Sunday Trump tweeted that “people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism”, adding that the US was “watching very closely for human rights violations”.

Earlier in the day, Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazil, said authorities would not tolerate the “spreading of violence, fear and terror”, which he said would “definitely be confronted”.

“Those who damage public property, disrupt order, people’s security and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and should answer and pay the price,” he said, according to the website of the state broadcaster Irib.

The broadcaster said authorities had blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, which is the most popular social networking platform in Iran, citing an anonymous source who said the move was “in line with maintaining peace and security of the citizens”. Authorities said the filtering was temporary.

It’s hard to overstate the power of Telegram in Iran. Of its 80m population, an estimated 40m use the free app created by Russian national Pavel Durov. Its clients share videos and photos, subscribing to groups where everyone from politicians to poets broadcast to fellow users.

While authorities ban social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and censor others, Telegram users can say nearly anything. In the last presidential election, the app played a big role in motivating turnout and spreading political screeds.

Telegram touts itself as being highly encrypted and allows users to set their messages to “self-destruct” after a certain period, making it a favourite among activists and others concerned about their privacy. That too has made it a worry of Iranian authorities.

A channel run by an exiled journalist, Roohallah Zam, helped organise some of those who took to the street, including times and locations for protests, and was suspended by Durov after Iranian authorities complained that it was inciting violence.

Zam, who denies the allegations, responded by launching new channels to spread messages about upcoming protests before the government ordered the app shut down. 

Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, said it had blocked access to the popular Amadnews channel after it had “started to instruct their subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against police”.

A source in Iran told the Guardian the state had started blocking access to Telegram, but it was not covering all provinces yet.

Authorities said two protesters were killed in the western province of Lorestan on Saturday, but denied it was the result of clashes between demonstrators and riot police.

The deputy governor for Lorestan, Habibollah Khojastehpour, said police and security guards had not opened fire, and instead blamed “Takfiri groups” – Iran’s term for Sunni extremists – and foreign intelligence services. “Unfortunately in these clashes two citizens from [the city of] Doroud were killed,” he said.

Iran protests new version

Many senior figures within the reformist camp and the opposition Green movement remain perplexed as to how to respond to the current wave of unrest. The sharp nature of some of the slogans, which have challenged the foundations of the Islamic republic, has left them mute.

There have been anti-Khamenei chants such as “Death to the dictator” and slogans opposing Iran’s regional policy, including “Let go of Syria, think about us” and “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon”.

There were also nostalgic slogans in support of the monarchy and the late shah, as well as some with a nationalistic nature, including “We are of Aryaee [Aryan] race, we don’t worship Arabs.” Relatively fewer chants were heard in support of two opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Some videos showed protesters apparently setting bins on fire and trying to break into government buildings. The semi-official Tasnim news, which is close to the elite Revolutionary Guards, published a photo that it said showed a protester setting fire to the Iranian flag. There were chants of “Death to the Revolutionary Guards” in at least one city.

Many Iranians are sceptical about how the protests have spread so quickly. One prominent senior reformist commentator, Hamidreza Jalaipour, said reformists were opposed to protests instigated by “advocates of regime change”, implying that the new wave of protests was not spontaneous.

A protester from Tehran University told the Guardian by phone that although students were puzzled about how the protests were organised and spreading so quickly, they were not “getting leads from anyone”.

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at International Crisis Group, called the protests “an explosion of the Iranian people’s pent-up frustrations over economic and political stagnation”, but he said: “This is neither a revolution nor a movement.”

Vaez said: “Given its lack of leadership, organisation and mission, it is likely to peter out or will be quelled. The Rouhani administration has two options: it can follow the example of its predecessors ([Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani after the protests of the early 1990s and [Mohammad] Khatami after the 1999 student uprising) and opt for a more cautious path, or capitalise on public discontent to push the system towards more genuine reforms. That choice will ultimately determine the Islamic Republic’s fate.”

Iranian conservatives, while acknowledging ordinary people were protesting for what they said were mainly economic reasons, accused foreign powers of inciting violence and exploiting the situation.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea

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7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea.

Preliminary reports warn tsunami waves could hit areas within 300km of the earthquake’s epicentre.

The quake hit off the coast New Britain region of Papua New Guinea earlier today. (Daily Star)

This is a breaking story and will be updated shortly

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NY Man Planned to Blow Himself Up at Washington Mall

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Police and FBI agents searched a Hudson Valley home Wednesday after learning about a man who was allegedly building a bomb in order to blow himself up in Washington D.C., two law enforcement officials told News 4 New York.

Investigators said they were concerned the man, identified as Paul Rosenfeld, at the home on Slocum Avenue in Orangetown was in the process of acquiring bomb parts.

Officials tell News 4 Rosenfeld had no criminal history but had told a reporter in Pennsylvania he planned to blow himself up on the Washington Mall around Election Day because he was angry about the country’s direction. 

He had no plans to hurt anyone else, officials said. He is believed to be a lone actor not affiliated with any international terror group or ideology. 

Full Article at https://nts24.co.uk/2A2oWjM 

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Trump ‘demanding’ answers from Saudis about missing writer

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday the U.S. is “demanding” answers from Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of a well-known Saudi writer and government critic Turkish authorities say was slain inside his country’s diplomatic mission in Istanbul.

Trump said he plans to invite to the White House the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, a writer for The Washington Post who has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 to get paperwork for his marriage.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question during an interview with Reuters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Members of Congress have grown increasingly insistent that the administration find out what happened to Khashoggi. The Saudi government has become a closer ally under Trump and some lawmakers warn that relations could be jeopardized if it turns out the kingdom was involved in his disappearance.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to the fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who had been waiting outside the consulate when Khashoggi went inside and has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.

Trump said nobody knows exactly what happened and expressed hope that Khashoggi is not dead. He also said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations.

Saudi Arabia denies involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a former insider in Saudi government circles who has been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year after fleeing a crackdown on intellectuals and activists in the country.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House national security adviser John Bolton and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information.

While angry members of Congress likely won’t cause the administration to turn away from Prince Mohammed and end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, they could throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “there will definitely be consequences” if it turns out the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi disappearance. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it would be “devastating” to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, “it’s time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.” But he said it was unclear whether the Trump administration was willing to “go beyond words.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he’ll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state Tuesday that he wants to end the arms shipments if there’s “any indication” the Saudis are “implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them.”

Trump’s comments Wednesday were the toughest yet from his administration on the Khashoggi case. Officials have expressed concern but refused even to entertain questions about what the consequences would be if Turkish allegations turn out to be true. Pompeo has called on the Saudi government to conduct a thorough investigation and to be transparent about its results.

The reaction from European governments has also been cautious. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told his Saudi counterpart that if media reports about Khashoggi were correct, it “would be extremely concerning and the U.K. will treat the incident very seriously,” according to the Foreign Office.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, has described the allegations as “malicious leaks and grim rumors” and said the kingdom is “gravely concerned” about Khashoggi. Saudi officials maintain he left the consulate shortly after entering, although it has failed to provide evidence.

Washington Post CEO and publisher Fred Ryan said reports suggested the journalist was victim of “state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder.” He demanded answers in a statement Tuesday, saying “Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable.”

Analysts said there were reasons for skepticism about the Turkish account. Ties between Ankara and Riyadh are at a low point over Turkey’s support for Qatar in that country’s yearlong dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power, is also annoyed by Ankara’s rapprochement with the kingdom’s Shiite archrival, Iran.

Saudi authorities’ failure to provide video footage of Khashoggi’s movements at the consulate to rebut the Turkish allegations have only deepened suspicions.

The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. That’s unlikely to change, said Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer. The administration’s Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for an expected plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.

Prince Mohammed has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he’s also squelched dissent and imprisoned activists. He has championed the three-year military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.

Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weapons, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taken adequate steps to prevent civilian despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chair of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won’t endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values,” House said. “It’s about shared security interests.”

___

Associated Press writers Susannah George, Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann and video journalist Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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