TEHRAN: Iran’s government warned citizens Saturday against holding “illegal” public gatherings, following two days of rare anti-government protests which spread to a number of cities.
The protests – described as the largest public display of discontent since the 2009 Green Movement in Iran – have emerged against a backdrop of rising food and gasoline prices.
Three students were arrested in unrest outside Tehran University on Saturday, an official with the Ministry of Science told Iran’s semi-official Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA. Two have since been released, it said.
The demonstrations began Thursday in the northeastern city of Mashhad on Thursday before spreading to cities across the nation on Friday.
They included Tehran, Kermanshah, Arak, Qazvin, Khorramabad, Karaj and Sabzevar, according to First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, cited by official news agency IRNA. Iranian media outlets reported a number of arrests.
The unrest has prompted verbal sparring between Iran and the United States, which on Friday urged Tehran to respect protesters’ rights and warned that the “world is watching.”
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli warned Saturday that any groups wishing to congregate must file an official request and be granted permission.
“The police and security forces have tried to manage conditions. We have received reports of calls to gather, cyber and social media based, and such calls and any gatherings resulting therefrom, are certainly illegal,” he said.
Meanwhile, crowds of government supporters joined official demonstrations held across the country on Saturday, state media reported.
The pro-government rallies held Saturday had been organized in advance to commemorate mass demonstrations held in 2009 to challenge the pro-reform protests.
An eyewitness in Tehran said nearly 2,000 people had gathered peacefully for a pro-government rally there. State-run Iranian broadcasters showed demonstrators waving the Iranian flag.
Meanwhile, coverage of the anti-government protests was very limited on state-run media, which referenced them only in passing.
US: ‘The world is watching’
The White House voiced its support for anti-government protesters in a statement Friday.
“There are many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with the regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. “The Iranian government should respect their people’s rights, including their right to express themselves. The world is watching.”
US President Donald Trump subsequently tweeted the same message.
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
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi pushed back against the US comments a day later, saying the Iranian people gave no credence to such “opportunistic” remarks by US President Donald Trump or his administration.
His statement on the Foreign Ministry website also described “Mr Trump’s government” as the main source of ill will toward Iran.
Foreign intervention claim
Iranian officials have pointed to foreign intervention as being behind the anti-government protests.
“Unfortunately, most of the people who participate in these gatherings are unsophisticated individuals who are not aware that these calls for protest are made by anti-revolution elements,” Mohsen Hamadani, Tehran deputy governor in charge of security affairs, was quoted as saying by the semi-official news agency ILNA.
“Most participants are not aware that anti-revolution elements are calling people to demonstrate against social issues such as inflation but chant untrue slogans.”
Protesters have been temporarily arrested for participating in “illegal demonstrations,” according to Hamadani, who said the demonstrators had not officially applied for permits to demonstrate.