TEHRAN, Iran — Thousands of hard-line regime supporters marched in cities across Iran on Saturday in a show of strength for the regime after two days of protests that marked the biggest unrest in years.
State television showed large crowds of black-clad supporters gathering in the capital Tehran, second city Mashhad and elsewhere to mark the anniversary of the end of “the sedition” — the last major unrest that followed disputed elections in 2009.
It was a coincidence that the pre-planned rallies came just after anti-government protests, which had spread from Mashhad on Thursday to numerous towns across the country.
Initially aimed against high prices, the anti-government protests quickly turned against the Islamic regime as a whole.
State TV aired live Saturday’s pro-government “9 Dey Epic” demonstrations, named for the date on the Iranian calendar the 2009 protests took place. The footage showed people waving flags and carrying banners bearing the image of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Tehran, some 4,000 people gathered at the Musalla prayer ground in central Tehran. They called for criminal trials for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, leaders in the Green Movement who have been under house arrest since 2011. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration struck the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, campaigned on freeing the men, though they remain held.
Mohsen Araki, a Shiite cleric who serves in Iran’s Assembly of Experts, praised Rouhani’s efforts at improving the economy. However, he said Rouhani needed to do more to challenge “enemy pressures.”
“We must go back to the pre-nuclear deal situation,” Araki said. “The enemy has not kept with its commitments.”
Ali Ahmadi, a pro-government demonstrator, blamed the US for all of Iran’s economic problems.
“They always say that we are supporting Iranian people, but who should pay the costs?” Ahmadi asked.
Iran’s economy has improved since the nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some of the international sanctions that crippled its economy. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals for tens of billions of dollars of Western aircraft.
That improvement has reached the average Iranian, however. Unemployment remains high. Official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry price by as much as 40 percent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the protests.
Videos 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.”
— Armin Navabi (@ArminNavabi) December 30, 2017
There were even chants in favor of the former monarchy toppled by the Islamic revolution of 1979, while others attacked the regime for supporting Palestinians and other regional movements rather than focusing on problems at home.
Footage of large-scale protests were shared from the cities of Rasht, Hamedan, Kermanshah, Qazvin and elsewhere, with police responding with water cannons.
“Alarm signal for everyone,” was the headline on reformist newspaper Arman, which called for action on living costs.
The conservative Javan newspaper warned that Iran’s “enemies are targeting the system’s popular support” and seeking to “create divisions.”
While state television focused entirely on the pro-government rallies on Saturday, officials nonetheless 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.”
The US condemned the arrest of protesters, telling Tehran that “the world is watching.”
“Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” President Donald Trump tweeted late Friday.
“Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves,” he wrote.
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 unauthorized lending institutions which collapsed with the loss of hundreds of thousands of accounts.
There has also been anger at welfare cuts and fuel price increases in the latest budget announced earlier this month.
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.
Although conservatives have fiercely criticized Rouhani for the country’s economic failings, they were already moving on Saturday to distinguish economic protests from wider attacks on the regime.
“The people who are protesting are vigilant and distance themselves from enemies of the system,” said Mohsen Rezai, former Revolutionary Guards commander, on his Instagram page.