TEHRAN: Tear gas filled the streets of downtown Tehran on Saturday as protests spilled into a third day, with the government warning against further “illegal gatherings”.
There was chaos around the University of Tehran as several hundred people scuffled with police and shouted slogans against the government for several hours, bringing traffic to a standstill.
But the authorities also put on a show of strength, with hundreds of counter-demonstrators seizing control of the university entrance in Tehran, chanting “Death to the seditionists”.
Demonstrations supposed to be an attack on high living costs turn against government as a whole
Videos shared by social media users outside Iran claimed to show thousands marching peacefully in several cities including Khorramabad, Zanjan and Ahvaz, with chants of “Death to the dictator”.
But a swirl of wild rumours online, combined with travel restrictions and a near-total media blackout from official agencies, made it difficult to verify footage.
Telecoms Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi accused one popular Telegram channel of encouraging the “use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprising, and social unrest”.
The authorities were fortunate that annual rallies marking the defeat of the last major protest movement in 2009 were already scheduled for Saturday morning and brought thousands of regime enthusiasts to the streets across the country.
The protests began in the second city of Mashhad on Thursday as an attack on high living costs but quickly turned against the government as a whole.
There were even chants in favour of the monarchy toppled by the Islamic revolution of 1979, while others criticised the government for supporting the Palestinians and other regional movements rather than focusing on problems at home.
At least two protesters were shot by Iranian security forces in the western town of Dorud, according to a video posted on social media. The video appeared to show demonstrators carrying two people in Dorud, where marchers were seen earlier shouting slogans against Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The footage could not be authenticated and the gravity of the injuries sustained by the two protesters was not immediately known.
State news channel IRINN said it had been banned from covering the protests that spread to towns and cities including Qom and Kermanshah.
“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, a prominent cleric, told a crowd in Tehran, according to the conservative Fars news agency.
Other officials also pointed the blame outside Iran. “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.
She posted images from Twitter accounts based in the United States and Saudi Arabia, voicing support for the Mashhad protests.
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.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2017