DUBAI – Iranian hardliners on Sunday burned French flags outside the French embassy in Tehran, protesting cartoons published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that lampoon Iran's ruling clerics.
The caricatures were published at a time of persistent anti-government protests in Iran, now in their fourth month. Demonstrators are calling for the downfall of its Islamic Republic and are challenging its hardline establishment.
The demonstrations outside of the French embassy follow previous attempts by Iran's rulers to mobilize their supporters in counter-demonstrations.
Hundreds of protesters, including students from seminary schools, shouted “Death to France” and accused French President Emmanuel Macron of insulting Iran while urging Paris to stop “animosity” toward Tehran. Police officers, some of whom appeared to be holding images of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, kept the demonstrators at a distance from the embassy building.
State television said some clerics held similar protests in the shrine city of Qom, the center of religious learning in Iran.
Iranian parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf on Sunday linked the French magazine's cartoons with what officials have repeatedly alleged is the West's plot to spread purported riots in Iran.
Later in the day, President Ebrahim Raisi offered his first reaction to the French cartoons and echoed similar claims. “Resorting to insults on the pretext of freedom is a clear indication of their frustration in concluding plot for chaos and insecurity” in Iran, he said.
Charlie Hebdo has a long history of publishing vulgar cartoons mocking Islamists, which critics say are deeply insulting to Muslims. Two French-born al-Qaida extremists attacked the newspaper’s office in 2015, killing 12 cartoonists, and it has been the target of other attacks over the years.
Its latest issue features the winners of a recent cartoon contest in which entrants were asked to draw the most offensive caricatures of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
One of the finalists depicts a turbaned cleric reaching for a hangman’s noose as he drowns in blood, while another shows Khamenei clinging to a giant throne above the raised fists of protesters. Others depict more vulgar and sexually explicit scenes.
Anti-government protests erupted across Iran in September after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the country's morality police for allegedly violating its strict Islamic dress code.
The unrest has grown into one of the severest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution that brought it to power. Human rights groups say that at least 517 protesters have been killed and over 19,200 people have been arrested amid a violent crackdown by security forces. Iranian authorities have not provided an official count of those killed or detained.
On Saturday, authorities executed two men convicted of allegedly killing a paramilitary volunteer in the demonstrations.
The Saturday hangings brought to four the number of people known to have been executed since the unrest began in September over the death of Amini. All of the sentences were handed out in rapid, closed-door trials that have been met with international criticism.
Sunday was also the third anniversary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's downing of an Ukrainian passenger plane with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people on board — a tragedy that ignited an outburst of anger across Iran. Tehran initially denied responsibility for downing the plane before admitting to having mistakenly done so amid high tensions with the U.S.
An Iranian court has yet to issue a verdict three years into the trial of 10 military personnel who have not been publicly identified but are allegedly implicated in the plane's downing.
Families of the victims met on Sunday at the site of the crash to hold a memorial ceremony separately from an official commemoration organized at Tehran's international airport, which had been the point of departure for the flight.
In a separate development on Sunday, a court sentenced Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to a five-year prison term for “propaganda against the system," Iranian media reported.
The outspoken and pro-reform Hashemi has been in prison since late September after she was arrested by security forces for supporting protests that have been led by women opposing the mandatory headscarf or hijab under the Islamic Republic.
In 2011, Hashemi was convicted and served five years in prison over similar security charges.
Iranian officials have continued to claim the months-long protests are being driven by foreign agents but have offered no proof.
Following Charlie Hebdo's publishing of cartoons mocking Iranian clerical figures, authorities in Tehran shut down on Thursday a decades-old French research institute and called the closure a “first step” in their response.