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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Rouhani slams officials' 'vow of silence' in face of protests

Recent weeks have seen social media filled with videos and reports of protests

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a military parade marking National Army Day in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a military parade marking National Army Day in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that officials were failing to respond effectively to mounting popular protests, in part because they are being threatened by unnamed behind-the-scenes forces.

Recent weeks have seen social media filled with videos and reports of protests, but since they are barely covered by domestic media and access is restricted for foreign journalists, they have been hard to verify.

They include protests by farmers over water shortages in Isfahan; by ethnic Arabs over the treatment of minorities in the southern province of Khuzestan; and over administrative reforms in the southwestern city of Kazeroon.

The videos appear to show these localised protests taking on broader slogans against the establishment, such as: "Our enemy is right here and falsely they say America is our enemy".

But in a wide-ranging speech carried on state television, Mr Rouhani said officials were failing to respond and appeared to have taken "a vow of silence".

"As people haven't got enough information … as people don't see plans for the future, as people see the current problems, they may get upset and angry, come to the streets and cry out," he told senior officials in Tehran.

"[But] we speak little to the people. Our government managers have taken a vow of silence. I don't know who told them to. I don't know what they are scared of."

Mr Rouhani said a major problem was that officials were being intimidated by unnamed "supervisory bodies".

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Read more: Large protests return to the Iranian city of Kazeroon

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He did not name them, but Rouhani has previously clashed with the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the conservative-dominated judiciary over their outsized role in politics and the economy.

"When in the morning [an official] is going to work, somebody sends him a text message, another calls him, another threatens him … the country cannot be run like this," he said.

In the past month, Tehran's reformist mayor Mohammad-Ali Najafi and the deputy head of the environment agency Kaveh Madani both quit their posts following pressure from hardliners, though Mr Najafi claimed he left for health reasons.

"Don't pay attention to some letters, some threats. If you are scared to respond, send them to me," Mr Rouhani said.

The president also appeared to criticise the morality police in his speech after a video emerged of a woman being beaten in the street for breaching the strict dress code.

"Some say the way to promote virtue and prohibit vice is ... by going to the street and grabbing people by the neck," Mr said Rouhani said. "Promoting virtue will not work through violence."

On Thursday, footage of a female member of the morality police beating a woman whose headscarf was not sufficiently covering her hair went viral.

The video prompted outrage on social media and the interior ministry promised an investigation, but also implied the woman may have provoked the violence by swearing at the police.

Mr Rouhani did not refer directly to the case, but appeared to use it to criticise recent efforts to clamp down on social media networks.

"Mobiles are the way to promote virtue and prohibit vice. I don't know why some people don't like mobile phones or social networks," he said.

"They don't like people having information. They think if people are in total ignorance, they can sleep better at night.

"Being informed is people's right ... Criticism is people's right," he said. "Let people live their lives."

There is mounting pressure to block foreign social media networks such as Telegram, which are the only way to spread information critical of Iran's Islamic system.

But Mr Rouhani said uncensored networks were vital to the economy, and warned that the Islamic revolution of 1979 would ultimately be judged by the regime's behaviour towards its people.

"If our behaviour has gotten worse [since 1979], then this revolution is on the wrong path. The fundamental purpose of the revolution is to respect people and solve their problems," he said.

"Whatever we want to do, if we convince people rather than threaten them ... we will succeed."