DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Iran’s authorities have restricted mobile internet access in several provinces, an Iranian news agency reported on Wednesday, a day before new protests were expected to kick off following calls for demonstrations on social media.
Social media posts, along with some relatives of people killed in unrest last month, have called for renewed protests and for ceremonies to commemorate the dead to be held on Thursday.
A senior official in the office of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied a report that the supreme leader had ordered President Hassan Rouhani to crack down on protesters, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Reuters has reported that Khamenei met with Rouhani and members of the Cabinet on Nov. 17 to greenlight the brutal clampdown, which allegedly killed about 1,500 protesters.
That death toll was based on figures from three unidentified Interior Ministry officials and is much higher than the latest figure from Amnesty International, which put the minimum death toll at 304.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiee has called the Reuters figure a “lie,” though he declined to give an official number and said the state was still working on a tally.
Iran was rocked by protests in November after the government increased gasoline prices by as much as 300 percent and introduced rationing as the economy struggles under crippling U.S. sanctions.
The unrest soon took a broader anti-establishment turn and authorities responded with a crackdown. The state began to acknowledge that its security forces shot and killed protesters, though it has described many as “rioters.”
State media said Wednesday that intelligence ministry agents had seized a cache of 126 mostly U.S.-made guns smuggled to the central city of Isfahan from abroad.
The government, whose crackdown on demonstrators was the bloodiest in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, has blamed foreign enemies for stoking tensions.
An official denied any order by the authorities to block the internet, which was shutdown for about a week in the November unrest. A news agency also cited mobile operators as saying their services had not been disrupted.
The semiofficial news agency ILNA quoted a 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,” ILNA said.
The 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,” said a resident in Ahvaz, the capital of the oil-producing Khuzestan province.
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.
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.
Security forces have been on alert for any events that could spark more unrest.
The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s communications minister last month for his role in “wide-scale 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.