Iran holds pro-government rallies as new protests break out

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 30, 2017 2:51 AM

DUBAI (Reuters) - Annual nationwide pro-government rallies were held in Iran on Saturday to mark the end of unrest which shook the country in 2009, state media reported, while local news agency and social media reports said a third day of protests had begun.

State television showed a rally in the capital Tehran and marchers carrying banners in support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Mashhad, Iran's second largest city.

Pro-government rallies were scheduled in more than 1,200 cities and towns, state television said, events held annually to mark the end of months of street protests which followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election as president in 2009.

At the same time, social media postings said a third day of protests broke out in cities including Tehran, Shahr-e Kord and Kermanshah, where a video showed dozens of protesters booing after police announced on a loudspeaker that any gathering would be illegal. The footage could not be authenticated.

The semi-official news agency Fars said up to 70 students gathered in front of Tehran University and hurled rocks at police. A social media video showed them chanting "Death to the dictator", in an apparent reference to Khamenei.

There is discontent over unemployment, rising prices and alleged corruption. The protests have also turned political over issues including the Islamic Republic's involvement in regional conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq.

Unemployment has risen and annual inflation is running at about 8 percent, with shortages of some foods also leading to higher prices.

Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli issued a warning against promoting protests online.

"We ask people not to take part in unlawful gatherings, if they plan a gathering they should apply (for a permit), and it will be examined," Rahmani-Fazli told the Young Journalists Club news website.

On Thursday, hundreds of people took to the streets in Mashhad to protest against high prices and shouted anti-government slogans. Police arrested 52 people, according to a judicial official.

The United States condemned the arrests, with President Donald Trump tweeting: "Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching!"

State media quoted Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi as saying in response: "The Iranian people see no value in the opportunistic claims by American officials and Mr. Trump."

Friday witnessed the largest wave of demonstrations since 2009 as protests spread to Tehran and other cities.

State broadcaster IRIB had not covered the protests "after being asked by relevant bodies that the issue should not be reflected on state radio and television", its website quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Most of those arrested in the last two days had been released, state television said, without giving details.

"Enemy websites and foreign media continue to try to exploit economic hardships and the legitimate demands of the people in this respect to launch illegal gatherings and possible unrest," it said.

The Revolutionary Guards and its Basij militia, which spearheaded a crackdown against protesters in 2009, said in a statement carried by state media: "The Iranian nation ... will not allow the country to be hurt."

Openly political protests are rare in Iran, where security services are omnipresent.

However, demonstrations are often held by workers over lay-offs or non-payment of salaries and by people who hold deposits in non-regulated, bankrupt financial institutions.

Prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda has called for tough action against the protests.

Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, a close ally of President Hassan Rouhani, suggested that hardline conservative opponents of the pragmatist president might have triggered the protests but lost control of them.

"Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers," state media quoted him as saying.

Rouhani’s leading achievement, a 2015 deal with world powers that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in return for a lifting of most international sanctions, has yet to bring the broad economic benefits the government says are coming.

Unemployment has risen to 12.4 percent this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, up 1.4 percentage points and leaving about 3.2 million Iranians jobless.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by Jason Neely)