Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said the country voiled 'a very dangerous plot' after the violent demonstrations
Tehran (AFP) - Iran has arrested eight people it accused of CIA links and sending abroad information on recent urban unrest, days after the United States said it had received thousands of messages on a protest crackdown in the Islamic republic.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Tehran of "deliberately covering up" more than 140 deaths that it said came when security forces suppressed demonstrations against a sharp fuel price hike.
Iran said that among the more than 500 people arrested were eight who were "linked to the CIA", state news agency IRNA said late Wednesday, citing the head of the intelligence ministry's counter-espionage department.
"Some elements who tried to collect information about the recent riots and send them out of the country... were identified and arrested," the director-general was quoted as saying.
Six of them were alleged to have been at "the riots and carrying out orders," IRNA reported, without naming the official.
Two others were arrested before they could leave the country, the news agency said, and all had been "trained in different countries on how to collect information... as citizen-journalists".
Iran's arch-foe the United States has said it received thousands of messages from the Islamic republic about the protests, including photos and videos, after issuing an appeal for people to defy sweeping internet restrictions.
"We've received to date nearly 20,000 messages, videos, pictures, notes of the regime's abuses through Telegram messaging services," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, referring to the encrypted app.
The unrest came after a year and a half of biting sanctions reimposed by US President Donald Trump that aim to heap "maximum pressure" on Iran and contain its regional influence.
The sanctions followed Trump's decision in May 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the United States from an international agreement on Iran's nuclear programme.
- 'Dangerous conspiracy' -
Iran has also come under pressure in neighbouring Iraq, where protesters infuriated by Tehran's influence on the government in Baghdad torched its consulate in the city of Najaf late Wednesday.
Tehran, which sees the nearly two months of protests in Iraq as a "conspiracy", on Thursday demanded decisive action against the Iraqi "aggressors" behind the consulate attack.
Iran has also blamed the unrest within its own borders on "thugs" backed by its foreign enemies, including the United States, Israel and the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, an exiled armed opposition group it considers a "terrorist" cult.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "the people foiled a deep, vast and very dangerous conspiracy on which a lot of money was spent for destruction, viciousness and the killing of people," state television reported Wednesday.
On Twitter, Khamenei expressed his "heartfelt gratitude and appreciation" to the Iranian nation in a post that featured pictures of a massive pro-government rally held Monday in Tehran.
"The people proved again that they are powerful and great, and defeated the big conspiracy of the enemy with their presence on the scene," he said.
The protests erupted across Iran on November 15, hours after petrol prices were hiked by as much as 200 percent with immediate effect.
Reports of deaths and arrests emerged as security forces were deployed to rein the demonstrations as they turned violent, with dozens of banks, petrol pumps and police stations torched.
A near-total internet blackout was imposed the next day, apparently to stem the flow of videos of violence being shared online.