By JON GAMBRELL
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian shops in Tehran’s historic Grand Bazaar and elsewhere across the country closed their doors Tuesday amid protests gripping the nation, as two prominent soccer stars also announced they would not be attending the upcoming World Cup over the demonstrations.
The shop closures came amid calls for a three-day national strike to mark earlier protests in 2019 against Iran’s theocracy that ended in a violent crackdown by authorities. However, this round of demonstrations after the September death of a 22-year-old woman earlier detained by the country’s morality police have continued despite activists recording at least 344 deaths and 15,820 arrests so far.
The protests have seen prominent former players Ali Daei and Javad Nekounam both say they’ve declined a FIFA invitation to attend the World Cup in Qatar, where Iran will play.
Shuttered storefronts could be seen across Tehran, Iran’s capital, on Tuesday. Several shops did remain open, however, as a heavy security presence could be seen on the streets.
In the Grand Bazaar, the beating heart of Tehran for hundreds of years that long has served as a political bellwether for Persian dynasties, store fronts were closed as a lone woman and a man pushing a cart walked among its narrow alleyways. A stray cat nibbled at trash down one of its silent warrens.
Videos taken earlier Tuesday showed crowds gathered outside of the closed shops, some shouting: “This year is a year of blood; Seyyed Ali will be toppled!” The chant, heard in other protests, refuses to use the title ayatollah to refer to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. An ayatollah is a high-ranking Shiite cleric and such calls targeting Khamenei can bring a death sentence in Iran’s closed-door Revolutionary Courts.
Other online videos purported to show shops closed elsewhere in the country as well, with some scattered demonstrations taking place.
Like the other protests after the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, the demonstrations appeared largely leaderless. A call on social media had gone out demanding a national strike not to buy or sell anything to mark the 2019 protests in Iran that followed a hike in government-subsidized gasoline prices that activists say saw at least 321 people killed in a subsequent crackdown.
Strikes may increasingly put pressure on the Iranian government, which so far has dismissed the demonstrators’ demands as a foreign plot by its enemies as opposed to an outpouring of public frustration.
Already, U.S. officials have said they received information from Saudi Arabia saying an attack by Iran on the kingdom may happen. The U.S. Navy said Tuesday it intercepted 70 tons of a missile fuel component on a ship heading from Iran to Yemen, where the country’s Houthi rebels have repeatedly targeted Saudi Arabia with ballistic missile fire.
Widening the demonstrations into strikes and boycotts could further raise pressure on Iran’s government, which already has seen its economy suffer under international sanctions after the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers. So far though, it has yet to affect production in its crucial oil and natural gas industry.
The U.N. human rights office separately called on Iran’s government to immediately release thousands of people who have been detained for participating in peaceful protests.
Iran’s theocracy has been trying to solidify its support amid the demonstrations, holding rallies to mark the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover and subsequent hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
It’s also focused on Iran’s upcoming appearance at the World Cup in Qatar. A prominent billboard in Tehran’s Vali Asr Square typically used by hard-liners shows Iran’s team heading into a match, apparently supported by warriors of its Persian past.
But two prominent former stars have said they won’t go to the matches in Qatar. Ali Daei, a top international goal scorer and Iranian team captain, said he declined to go when his country was “grief-stricken.”
“I want to be with my compatriots and express sympathy with all those who have lost loved ones,” the former center-forward said.
Javad Nekounam, another star, similarly has declined to go to the World Cup, Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.