The demonstration was a direct challenge to the Iranian government’s response to the disaster a week ago, as pressure mounts in the Islamic Republic over rising food prices and other economic problems as it unravels its nuclear deal with world powers.
While the protests so far appear to be leaderless, even Arab tribes in the region appeared to be joining them on Sunday, raising the risk of mounting unrest. Tensions between Tehran and the West have already escalated after Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps seized two Greek oil tankers seized at sea on Friday.
Ayatollah Mohsen Heidari AleKasir tried to address upset mourners near the site of the 10-storey Metropol building, but hundreds gathered Sunday night instead booed and shouted.
Surrounded by bodyguards, the ayatollah, in his sixties, tried to carry on, but was unsuccessful.
“What is going on?” the cleric whispered to a bodyguard, who then leaned over to tell him something.
The cleric then tried to address the crowd again: “My dear, please remain calm, as a sign of respect for Abadan, his martyrs and the dear (victims) that the entire Iranian nation mourns tonight.”
The crowd responded by shouting, “Shameless!”
A live state television broadcast of the event was then cut off. Protesters later chanted, “I will kill; I will kill the one who killed my brother!”
Tehran-based daily Hamshahri and the semi-official Fars news agency said the protesters attacked the platform where state television had set up its camera, interrupting the broadcast.
Police ordered the crowd not to chant slogans against the Islamic Republic and then ordered them to leave, calling their rally illegal. Video later showed officers confronting protesters and batting as clouds of tear gas rose. At least one officer fired what appeared to be a shotgun, although it was not clear whether it was live or so-called “beanbag” rounds intended to stun.
It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured or if the police made any arrests.
The details in the videos matched known features of Abadan, about 660 kilometers southwest of the capital Tehran. Farsi-language television channels based abroad described tear gas and other shots fired.
Independent news gathering remains extremely difficult in Iran. During the unrest, Iran disrupted internet and telephone communications to the affected areas while restricting the movement of journalists in the country. Reporters Without Borders describes the Islamic Republic as the third worst country in the world to be a journalist – only after North Korea and Eritrea.
Following the collapse of the tower in Abadan on Monday, authorities acknowledged that the building’s owner and corrupt government officials had allowed the Metropol building to be built, despite concerns about shoddy workmanship. Authorities have arrested 13 people as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the disaster, including the city’s mayor.
Rescue teams pulled three more bodies from the rubble on Monday, bringing the death toll in the collapse to 32, according to state news agency IRNA. Authorities fear more people may be trapped under the rubble.
The deadly collapse has raised questions about the safety of similar buildings in the country and underlined an ongoing crisis in Iranian construction projects. The collapse reminded many of the 2017 fire and the collapse of Tehran’s iconic Plasco building that killed 26 people.
In Tehran, the city’s emergency department warned that 129 high-rise buildings in the capital remained “unsafe”, based on an investigation in 2017. The country’s Attorney General Mohammad Javad Motazeri has promised to address the issue immediately.
Abadan has also experienced disasters in the past. In 1978, a deliberate fire at Cinema Rex – just a few blocks from the collapsed building in modern Abadan – killed hundreds. Anger over the fire sparked unrest in Iran’s oil-rich regions and sparked the Islamic revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Abadan, in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, is home to Iran’s Arab minority, who have long complained about being treated as second-class citizens in the Persian nation. Arab separatists in the region have attacked pipelines and security forces in the past. Videos and the newspaper Hamshahri noted that two tribes had entered the city to support the protests.
Meanwhile, one of the two Greek tankers seized by Iran on Friday turned on its tracking equipment for the first time since the incident. The oil tanker Prudent Warrior released a satellite position Monday at Bandar Abbas, a major Iranian port, according to MarineTraffic.com data analyzed by The Associated Press.
Five armed guards were at the Prudent Warrior Monday, although Iranian authorities allowed the crew to use their cell phones, said George Vakirtzis, the finance director for the ship’s manager Polembros Shipping.
“The whole matter is political and in the hands of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Iranian government,” Vakirtzis told the AP.
It remains unclear where the second ship, the Delta Poseidon, is.
Follow Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP and www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.