TEHRAN: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday that government bodies must provide “space for criticism” as he sought to head off days of unrest, but also warned protesters that violence was unacceptable.
Hundreds of protesters marched through Tehran and other cities in a fourth day of demonstrations as authorities cut access to social media.
President Rouhani finally broke his silence on the protests that mark the biggest test for the government since mass protests in 2009.
They began as demonstrations against economic conditions in second city Mashhad on Thursday, but quickly turned anti-government, with thousands marching in towns across Iran amid chants of “Death to the dictator”.
“The people are absolutely free in expressing their criticism and even protests,” Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting, according to the state broadcaster.
“But criticism is different from violence and destroying public property.”
He sought a conciliatory tone, saying that government bodies “should provide space for legal criticism and protest” and calling for greater transparency and a more balanced media.
Protests continue as authorities cut access to social media
US President Donald Trump said the “big protests” showed people “were getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism”.
“Looks like they will not take it any longer,” he wrote on Twitter, warning that Washington is “watching very closely for human rights violations!”
The Iranian president dismissed Trump’s comments, saying: “This man who today in America wants to sympathise with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called the nation of Iran terrorist.
“This person whose whole being is against the nation of Iran has no right to feel pity for the people of Iran.”
Two hundred people were reported to have been arrested in Saturday night’s unrest in Tehran, and officials confirmed two people had been killed in the small western town of Dorud.
In an apparent attempt to stave off more unrest, the authorities began blocking access to photo sharing and online messaging services on mobile phones, including Telegram, which the government accused of being used to foment violence.
Conservative news agency Fars said Tehran shops had closed on Sunday “for fear of damage to their shops by rioters”.
After initial silence, state media has shown footage of unrest, focusing on young men violently targeting banks and vehicles, an attack on a town hall in Tehran, and images of a man burning the Iranian flag.
“Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price,” Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said on state television.
“The spreading of violence, fear and terror will definitely be confronted,” he added.
There have been reminders of continued support for the government among conservative sections of society, with pro-regime students holding another day of demonstrations at the University of Tehran.
They had outnumbered protesters at the university on Saturday.
Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but anger over high living costs and a 12-percent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow.
Unemployment is particularly high among young people, who are generally considered less deferential to authority.
“Rouhani has run an austerity budget since 2013 with the idea that it’s a tough but necessary pill to swallow to manage inflation and currency problems and try to improve Iran’s attractiveness for investment,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.
“But choosing years of austerity immediately after a very tough period of sanctions is bound to test people’s patience,” he added.
Meanwhile, the total number of arrests from the protests around the country remained unclear.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2018