File photo of that Iranian national flag as it flies from a flagpole in a residential district of Tehran, Iran. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Trump Says World Watching Iran as Hardliners Hold Counterrallies

(Bloomberg) -- Iranian hardliners supporting the Islamic Republic staged rallies across the country on Saturday, a day after the arrests of protesters complaining about corruption and the government’s handling of the economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that the “world is watching” events in Iran, and that the government “should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves.”

The Foreign Ministry in Tehran dismissed Trump’s comments. “The Iranian people place no value or credibility in the opportunistic claims of U.S. officials or of Mr. Trump himself,” Bahram Ghassemi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency posted a video of state-organized demonstrations in the city of Mashhad, where anti-state protests started on Thursday and led to the arrest of more than 50 people.

Trump Says World Watching Iran as Hardliners Hold Counterrallies

Protests that erupted over the economy and rising food prices under the government of President Hassan Rouhani broadened to include frustration with the political system.

By the early evening Saturday, there were still about 50 protesters gathered outside the City Theatre in downtown Tehran, chanting and raising their arms in an area already swarming with commuters and onlookers. At least a dozen black police pickup trucks and vans surrounded the area.

“They’re chanting slogans against the system,” an onlooker, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue, said from his vantage point in the shuttered entrance of a nearby metro station.

Videos circulating on social media, including on Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, which is used by millions of Iranians, purportedly showed skirmishes and clashes between protesters and police in some 20 cities and towns. Bloomberg wasn’t able to independently verify any of the footage.

One clip claimed to showed protesters in the town of Doroud in western Lorestan province, carrying away a man whose clothes were bloodied. Another showed people throwing rocks at a large office building with broken windows. A narrator, citing today’s date, said it was the municipal building in Malayer, capital of Hamedan province, before showing shattered glass covering the ground.

Molotov Cocktails

Telegram Chief Executive Officer Pavel Durov said an unofficial news channel on the widely used app was suspended after Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, informed him via Twitter that the channel, AmadNews, was telling its subscribers to hurl Molotov cocktails at police.

Trump Says World Watching Iran as Hardliners Hold Counterrallies

“Calls for violence are prohibited by the Telegram rules. If confirmed, we’ll have to block such a channel, regardless of its size and political affiliation,” Durov said on Twitter. “Be careful -- there are lines one shouldn’t cross.”

Twitter is officially banned by authorities in Iran, but many officials including ministers access the site using proxy servers.

Widespread Protests

Other anti-government protests took place Friday in Kermanshah, Rasht, Sari, Qazvin, Hamadan and the holy city of Qom, according to Fars news agency, which is seen as aligned with hardliners and Iran’s armed forces. It also said as many as 70 people gathered near Enghelab Square and the gates of Tehran University on Saturday afternoon.

“Unlike the other demonstrations in different cities, which concerned livelihoods and protests against high prices, today’s protest had a political smell and hue,” Fars reported.

Saturday’s rallies were part of a scheduled annual event marking the end of unrest that broke out after the disputed 2009 re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which state institutions in Iran refer to as “the sedition.”

Iran’s interior minister urged people not to take part in unauthorized gatherings and protests, calling the events of the past two days “illegal,” the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency reported.

Protests a Plot?

“If people intend to protest, they should apply for a permit and it will be assessed,”  Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said. 

Trump Says World Watching Iran as Hardliners Hold Counterrallies

Government officials have termed the protests a plot against the Islamic Revolution. Economic issues “were being used as an excuse and something else, behind the curtain, is going on,” First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said in a speech Friday.

Saeed Laylaz, a domestic economist, said in an interview that “The middle classes need to take part in these protests for them to gain any momentum and they won’t, because by and large, they are still backing Rouhani.”

Videos purporting to be of the anti-government protests in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, circulated widely on Twitter and Telegram. They showed protesters chanting against Rouhani and calling for “the economically corrupt” to be executed. A small number of people were also detained in Tehran, a senior provincial official told the Iran Labor News Agency.

Rouhani’s government has faced criticism since his re-election in May, both from hardline opponents and disillusioned supporters, who’d been expecting a broader economic recovery following the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and easing of international sanctions. Households have been strained by rising prices of key goods, while instability among unregulated lenders has also triggered unrest in the past six months.

Wealth Squandering

“Many reports of peaceful protests Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” Trump tweeted on Friday. Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that “the United States strongly condemns the arrest of peaceful protesters.”

Trump followed up on Saturday, saying on Twitter that “the good people of Iran want change” and that “Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most.” The messages were adapted from Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice,” Trump said.

Several provinces reported this week that the price of eggs had risen by as much as 50 percent, according to the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency. The spike was caused by an outbreak of avian influenza, government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht told reporters, according to Tasnim.

In Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the leader of Friday prayers who’s seen as a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that protesters shouldn’t allow their concerns “to become fodder for the foreign media, which wants to sow sedition.” A day earlier, he said people had a right to be unhappy with the economic situation.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.