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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Iranian protesters attack religious school

Attack comes amid renewed unrest over the economy as US sanctions loom

Iranians chant slogans in Tehran's old grand bazaar during protests on June 25, 2018. Iranian Labor News Agency via AP
Iranians chant slogans in Tehran's old grand bazaar during protests on June 25, 2018. Iranian Labor News Agency via AP

Iranians attacked a religious school in Karaj province near Tehran during renewed protests over the economy ahead of the reimposition of US sanctions this week.

The attack was reported by the Fars news agency on Saturday, after days of protests in the major cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and Tehran that were barely mentioned by the authorities.

"At 9pm [on Friday] they attacked the school and tried to break the doors down and burn things," Fars quoted the head of the school in the town of Ishtehad, Hojatoleslam Hindiani, as saying.

It gave only his clerical rank - Hojatoleslam - not his given name.

"They were about 500 people and they chanted against the system but they were dispersed by the riot police and some have been arrested," Mr Hindiani told Fars.

"These people came with rocks and broke the sign and all the windows of the prayer house and they were chanting against the system."

There have been several many protests in Iran since last year, driven by concerns over the economy as well as wider anger at the political system. During demonstrations, Iranian news outlets have focused on attacks against sensitive symbols such as religious buildings as a way of tarnishing the protests.

Videos posted on social media in recent days have shown people marching in the streets of several cities, chanting "Death to the dictator" and other slogans.

But these have been impossible to verify and the authorities have charged that they are promoted by foreign-based opposition groups funded by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign media are barred from observing or filming "unauthorised" protests.

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The videos on social media suggest the protests in recent days are smaller in scale compared to the unrest in December and January, when at least 25 people were killed in demonstrations that spread to dozens of towns and cities.

But Iranians are deeply concerned about the effect the return of US sanctions will have on the already troubled economy.

The US withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May and is reimposing "maximum pressure" sanctions in two phases - the first on Tuesday and then a second on November 5.

The first phase includes blocks on financial transactions and imports of raw materials, as well as sanctions on Iran's car sector and commercial aircraft purchases.

Iran Air announced that it would take delivery of five ATR aircraft from the French-Italian company on Sunday, sneaking under the wire before the sanctions on aircraft purchases return.

Iran says the sanctions are endangering lives by blocking the sale of new planes and spare parts for its ageing fleets.

Iran's Aseman Airlines was ordered to ground its fleet of ATR planes in February after one of them crashed in the Zagros mountains, killing all 66 people on board.

Remaining sanctions - including on Iran's oil and gas sector and central bank - will resume on November 5.

Although smaller foreign companies have vowed to work around the US sanctions, multinationals such as France's Total and Peugeot and Germany's Siemens have already said they will have to pull out.

Increased US hostility has also driven a run on Iran's currency, which has lost around two thirds of its value in six months.

It is not yet clear how all this will affect ordinary Iranians but a western diplomat in Tehran who monitors the economy said prices of basic foods were already creeping up.

"We are already seeing car prices going through the roof over fears about raw material imports," the diplomat said.

"In November, when oil sales are affected, we will have a clearer view of the impact on daily lives."

The diplomat said the collapse in the value of the rial was not driven by purely economic factors but instead by people rushing to buy gold or hard currency as a safe haven for their savings because they do not trust the government to improve the situation.

"There is a massive loss of confidence in the financial system and the government's ability to control things and withstand sanctions."

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