Iranians protesting the country's strained economy gathered in Tehran and other cities on Friday, for the second day of spontaneous, unsanctioned demonstrations placing pressure on President Hassan Rohani's government.
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Iranian authorities arrested a small number of demonstrators in Tehran, Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency reported.
Social media videos showed similar protesters taking place in the northern city of Qom, the center of Shi'ite Islam in Iran. Meanwhile, the semi-official Fars news agency quoted officials as saying that around 300 protesters shouting anti-government slogans gathered in the western city of Kermanshah and were dispersed by riot police.
Protests were also reported in Rasht, Shiraz, Isfahan and Hamadan, among others. If verified, this would be the largest wave of protests in Iran since 2009.
The ILNA report quoted the security deputy of Tehran's governor, Mohsen Hamedani, as saying that fewer than 50 people gathered at a public square in Tehran, and that most of them left after a police warning but a few decided to stay on.
"A few of them were temporarily arrested," Hamedani said, without elaborating on the exact figure.
A day earlier, similar protests in the country’s northeast ended in arrests.
The outbreak of regional unrest reflects growing discontent over rising prices and alleged corruption, as well as concern over the Islamic Republic’s costly involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria and Iraq.
Social media videos showed demonstrators chanting ”Leave Syria, think about us," and "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, our lives for Iran," urging Tehran to focus on Iran's economic woes.
About 300 demonstrators gathered in Kermanshah, the main city in a region where an earthquake killed over 600 people in November, after what Fars called a “call by the anti-revolution” and shouted “political prisoners should be freed” and “freedom or death,” while destroying some public property.
Friday's protests came a day after hundreds rallied in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad to protest against high prices and shout anti-government slogans. Protests were also held in at least two other northeastern cities. Demonstrators shouted “The people are begging, the clerics act like God,” and “Death to (President Hassan) Rohani” and “Death to the dictator."
Police arrested 52 people in Thursday’s protests, Fars quoted a judicial official as saying in Mashhad, one of the holiest places in Shi‘ite Islam.
In social media footage, riot police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse crowds.
Purely political protests are rare in Iran, where security services are omnipresent. The last unrest of national significance occurred in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president ignited eight months of street protests. Pro-reform rivals said the vote was rigged.
But demonstrations are often held by workers over layoffs or non-payment of salaries and people who hold deposits in non-regulated, bankrupt financial institutions.
Prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda called earlier for tough action against the protests.
“If the security and law enforcement agencies leave the rioters to themselves, enemies will publish films and pictures in their media and say that the Islamic Republic system has lost its revolutionary base in Mashhad,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Alamolhoda as saying.
Alamolhoda, the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in northeastern Mashhad, said a few people had taken advantage of Thursday’s protests against rising prices to chant slogans against Iran’s role in regional conflicts.
Tehran backs Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war, Shi‘ite militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group.
“Some people had come to express their demands, but suddenly, in a crowd of hundreds, a small group that did not exceed 50 shouted deviant and horrendous slogans such as ‘Let go of Palestine’, ‘Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’d give my life (only) for Iran’,” Alamolhoda said.
Mohsen Nasj Hamadani, deputy security chief in Tehran province, said on Friday any unauthorized protest would be “firmly dealt with”, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.
Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, a close Rohani ally, suggested that hardline conservative opponents of the pragmatist president might have triggered the protests.
“When a social and political movement is launched on the streets, those who started it will not necessarily be able to control it in the end,” IRNA quoted Jahangiri as saying. “Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers. They think they will hurt the government by doing so.”
Rohani’s signature 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 stood at 12.4 percent in this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, up 1.4 percent from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.