EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini Tuesday deplored “the unacceptable loss of human lives” linked to the protests in Iran and called on “all concerned to refrain from violence.”
A total of 21 people have been killed in the protests which erupted last Thursday in the second city Mashhad and quickly spread.
“The European Union is closely following the ongoing demonstrations in Iran, the increase of violence and the unacceptable loss of human lives,” Mogherini said in a statement released Tuesday night on behalf of the EU.
“Peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression are fundamental rights that apply to every country, and Iran is no exception,” she said, adding that “in the last days, we have been in touch with the Iranian authorities.”
“In the spirit of openness and respect that is at the root of our relationship, we expect all concerned to refrain from violence and to guarantee freedom of expression,” said Mogherini.
The EU on Monday called on Iran to guarantee the right to protest as authorities moved to crack down on days of unrest.
The protests are the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime since mass demonstrations over a disputed presidential election in 2009.
Iran’s supreme leader blamed “enemies” Tuesday for the unrest.
In a speech carried on state television, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei broke his silence on the protests. “The enemies have united and are using all their means, money, weapons, policies and security services to create problems for the Islamic regime,” the supreme leader said.
“The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation.”
Even reformists, who backed the last major protest movement in 2009, condemned the unrest and the support it has received from the United States.
But they also urged the authorities to address economic grievances that have fuelled the protests.
“The Iranian people are confronted with difficulties in their daily lives… and have the right to peacefully demand and protest,” said a statement from the Association of Combatant Clerics, headed by reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami.
A fifth night of unrest Monday to Tuesday saw six protesters killed during an attack on a police station in Qahderijan in the central province of Isfahan, state TV said.
At least three other towns near the cultural hub of Isfahan also saw violence overnight, causing the deaths of a young member of the Revolutionary Guards, a policeman and a bystander.
As violence has grown, authorities have stepped up arrests, with at least 450 people detained in Tehran since Saturday and 100 more around Isfahan on Monday, media reported.
US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Tehran since the latest protests began, praised the demonstrators for acting against the “brutal and corrupt” regime and said Iranians had “little food, big inflation and no human rights.”
Iran’s foreign ministry said Trump was “wasting his time sending useless and insulting tweets” and would be better off focusing on “homeless and hungry people” in his own country.
Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the US would seek emergency UN talks on the situation.
“The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” she said at a news conference. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”
Haley rejected as “complete nonsense” Khamenei’s charges that the protests were being fomented by Iran’s “enemies.”
“The freedoms that are enshrined in the United Nations charter are under attack in Iran. Dozens have already been killed. Hundreds have been arrested,” she said.
“If the Iranian dictatorship’s history is any guide, we can expect more outrageous abuses in the days to come.”
Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani phoned his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron Tuesday to demand action against the Paris-based “terrorist” Mujahedeen-e-Khalq opposition group he accused of fomenting protests.
A statement from the French presidency said Macron called for “restraint,” and both sides agreed to postpone an imminent visit to Tehran by the French foreign minister.
The unrest in Iran appears leaderless and focused on provincial towns and cities, with only small and sporadic protests in Tehran amid a heavy police presence.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, described the unrest as a “proxy war against the Iranian people” and said online accounts in the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia were encouraging demonstrations.
Many Tehranis agreed with his assessment.
“When there is a protest, you can be sure other countries will take advantage of it and interfere,” 30-year-old architectural engineer Mehdi Rahmani told AFP.
But he also understood the economic grievances driving the unrest.
Residents of Tehran react to days of unrest in Iran that have seen 21 killed and hundreds arrested in the biggest test for the Islamic regime in years pic.twitter.com/KkAlhpzDxb
— AFP news agency (@AFP) January 2, 2018
“The root of people’s protests are merely their economic problems, the problem of youth unemployment,” he said.
Rouhani has tried to play down the unrest, which began over economic woes but quickly turned against the regime as a whole.
Pro-regime rallies have also been held, reflecting continued support among a large conservative section of society.
The head of Tehran’s revolutionary court, Moussa Ghazanfarabadi, warned that as violence grows punishments for demonstrators would get “heavier.”
“We no longer consider them as protesters demanding rights, but as people targeting the regime,” he told the conservative Tasnim news agency.
Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but high living costs and a 12 percent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow.
The young are the most affected, with as many as 40% jobless according to analysts, and rural areas particularly hard-hit.
Rouhani on Sunday acknowledged there was “no problem bigger than unemployment,” and also vowed a more balanced media and more transparency.
In 2009, authorities ruthlessly put down protests against the re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At least 36 people were killed, according to an official toll, while the opposition says 72 died.