TEHRAN, Iran (AFP) — The Iranian government warned people against further protests on Saturday after two days of demonstrations sparked by anger over an array of economic problems even as a fresh demonstration was reported at the University of Tehran.
“We urge all those who receive these calls to protest not to participate in these illegal gatherings as they will create problems for themselves and other citizens,” said Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli.
State news channel IRINN said it had been banned from covering the protests that spread from second city Mashhad on Thursday to hit several towns and cities.
The protests initially targeted economic problems, but quickly turned against the Islamic regime as a whole.
Despite the warning small protests broke out around the University of Tehran on Saturday, local media reported.
A video shared on social media appeared to show students scuffling with police in downtown Tehran near the city’s university and chanting slogans against the regime.
"The nation is destitute while the Leader lives like God" students at Tehran University chant against #Iran regime's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei today Day 3 of #IranProtests – from the MEK's underground network. #FreeIran #No2Rouhani pic.twitter.com/65H3r9pTHH
— M. Hanif Jazayeri (@HanifJazayeri) December 30, 2017
The conservative-linked Fars news agency put the number of protesters at “between 50 and 70” and said riot police had been dispatched to the scene.
“Unlike other protests in various cities which were against the economic situation and high prices, the one in front of the University of Tehran was political,” Fars said.
The students repeated a popular chant of “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” — an expression of anger over claims the government is focusing more on regional issues than problems at home.
— Trouska.Sadeghi (@TruTawar) December 30, 2017
The demonstrators were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. Pro-regime students shouted “Death to the seditionists” as they seized back control of the entrance of the University of Tehran.
The protests were far smaller than those seen in other cities on Thursday and Friday, which began with a demonstration against high living costs in second city Mashhad.
US President Donald Trump warned “the world is watching” after dozens of demonstrators were arrested.
Happening right now- Demonstration in #Shahrekord the capital city of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in #Iran. People are bravely confronting repressive security forces #iranprotests #RegimChangepic.twitter.com/5Hpm6VElvD
— Arta (@artamirzaei) December 30, 2017
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi dismissed Trump’s comments as “irrelevant” and “opportunistic.”
He said Iranians remembered Trump’s actions in barring them from entry to the United States and “the arrest of many Iranians in that country on baseless pretexts.”
“That’s why they see the support of these officials for some rallies in recent days in some Iranian cities as opportunistic,” he added.
“The constitution of the Islamic republic of Iran has established democratic structures for the legal support of people’s civil demands,” he said.
Media coverage inside Iran focused almost exclusively on pro-regime rallies held on Saturday to mark the defeat of the last major protest movement in 2009, which hardliners call “the sedition.”
The timing was coincidental, since the rallies are held every year on this day, but offered a handy show of strength to the regime as huge crowds of black-clad supporters gathered across the country.
“The enemy wants once again to create a new plot and use social media and economic issues to foment a new sedition,” Ayatollah Mohsen Araki told a crowd in Tehran, according to the conservative Fars news agency.
Video footage on social media showed hundreds marching through the holy city of Qom on Friday evening, with people chanting “Death to the dictator,” and “Free political prisoners.”
— Robert Pacheco (@bobibouche) December 30, 2017
There were even chants in favor of the monarchy toppled by the Islamic revolution of 1979, while others criticized the regime for supporting the Palestinians and other regional movements rather than focusing on problems at home.
Footage showed thousands gathered in the cities of Rasht, Hamedan, Kermanshah, Qazvin, and elsewhere, with police responding with water cannons.
Young residents of #Kermanshah, clash with anti-riot forces using water cannon to disperse the protestors. Thousands took part in Kermanshah protest today, chanting "death to dictator, death to Rouhani", according to the network of the PMOI/ MEK inside #Iran. #FreeIran pic.twitter.com/qi6OIANCfH
— Shahin Gobadi (@gobadi) December 29, 2017
Officials were quick to blame outside forces for the unrest.
“Although people have a right to protest, protesters must know how they are being directed,” Massoumeh Ebtekar, vice president in charge of women’s affairs, wrote on Twitter.
She posted images from Twitter accounts based in the United States and Saudi Arabia, voicing support for the Mashhad protests.
Nonetheless, officials warned against dismissing the public anger seen in recent days.
“The country is facing serious challenges with unemployment, high prices, corruption, lack of water, social gap, unbalanced distribution of budget,” wrote Hesamoddin Ashena, cultural adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, on Twitter.
“People have the right for their voice to be heard.”
There has been particular anger at welfare cuts and fuel price increases in the latest budget announced earlier this month.
Since the 2009 protests were ruthlessly put down by the Revolutionary Guards, many middle-class Iranians have abandoned hope of pressing for change from the streets.
But low-level strikes and demonstrations have continued, often on a sector-by-sector basis as bus drivers or teachers or workers from specific factories protest against unpaid wages or poor conditions.
Some of this week’s protests were directed against financial scandals linked to unauthorised lending institutions which collapsed with the loss of hundreds of thousands of accounts.
Payam Parhiz, editor-in-chief of reformist media network Nazar that broke the news of the Mashhad protests, said they were more focused on the economy than those in 2009, which were sparked by allegations of election-rigging.
“Then, they were middle-class and their slogans went beyond economic matters to things like cultural liberties,” he told AFP.
“Today, the concerns are economic. There are people who have lost their life savings. They will protest until their problems are resolved.”
Since taking power in 2013, Rouhani has sought to clean up the banking sector and kickstart the economy, but many say progress has been too slow.
Aware that economic problems can quickly spiral into political chaos, officials from across the political spectrum have called for greater efforts to tackle poverty and the 12 percent unemployment rate.
“Solving people’s economic problems is the chief priority in the country,” tweeted Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric defeated by Rouhani in May’s presidential election.