Iranian state-controlled media on Saturday characterized the worst anti-regime protests in eight years as masterminded by American, British, and Israeli spies seeking “to stir unrest” in the Islamic republic.
The regime on Saturday warned protesters against holding fresh demonstrations, and organized rallies by hardline supporters, after protests spread Thursday and Friday into several cities including Tehran. Fifty-two people were arrested in Iran’s second most populous city of Mashhad on Thursday. State news channel IRINN said it had been banned from covering the protests.
The semi-official Fars News Agency said pro-regime demonstrators, in “resolutions” issued at the end of counter-rallies on Saturday, had warned against “any kind of move masterminded by the anti-revolutionary forces and the US, British, and Israeli spy agencies to stir unrest and dissidence in Iran.”
It claimed Washington, London, and Jerusalem played “pivotal roles” in the 2009 Green Movement protests against the reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Fars said pro-regime protesters had “further reiterated their everlasting allegiance to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.”
Media coverage inside Iran focused almost exclusively on the pro-regime rallies held on Saturday to mark the defeat of the last major protest movement in 2009, which hardliners call “the sedition.”
On Friday evening, video footage on social media showed hundreds marching through the holy city of Qom, with people chanting “Death to the dictator,” and “Free political prisoners.”
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.
Fars claimed “millions of Iranians across the country” gathered in the streets Saturday “to show allegiance to the Islamic Republic one day after tens of people staged economic protests in a few towns.”
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.
At the same time, however, students protested in Tehran in a third day of demonstrations sparked by anger over Iran’s economic problems.
The pro-regime students shouted “Death to the seditionists” as they seized back control of the entrance of the University of Tehran, videos published by several local news agencies showed.
This followed a relatively small protest by several dozen students, with videos on social media showing scuffles with police and chants against the regime.
“The opportunists who wanted to benefit from the situation have been dispersed with the arrival of [the other] students,” the conservative-linked Tasnim news agency reported.
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) December 30, 2017
The numbers at the anti-regime protests on Saturday appeared to be smaller than in demonstrations seen across other major towns and cities on Thursday and Friday, which had been sparked by high living costs but quickly turned against the Islamic regime as a whole.
Fars said “harsh chants” were heard at the Tehran protests and that 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.
— Millie Bobby Bruh (@bobibouche) December 30, 2017
Meanwhile Iran said US President Donald Trump’s support for protests in the country was “deceitful and opportunist.”
“The Iranian people see no value in the opportunistic remarks by American officials and Mr Trump,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on its website.
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.
Trump tweeted on Friday night in support of protests against Iran’s economic problems that had spread to several towns and cities in Iran.
Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching! #IranProtests
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2017
“Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” he wrote.
“Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching! #IranProtests.”
The Iranian government warned people against further protests.
“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.
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.
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.”
Since taking power in 2013, President Hassan 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.