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Iran protests: Regime supporters out in force

Supporters of Iranian regime have come out in their thousands amid anti-government protests lamenting Iran's economic problems. Authorities have warned of a crackdown as rallies spread to several cities.

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Protesters rally in western Iran

Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in pro-government rallies on Saturday in a show of support for the country's leaders, following two days of rare protests against high prices and a sluggish economy.

State television showed crowds of supporters in the capital Tehran, Mashhad and other cities marking the anniversary of the end of a major period of unrest following disputed elections in 2009. 

Their footage contrasted with social media images of smaller groups of protesters shouting anti-government slogans including "death to the dictator," amid concerns of a repeat of the bloody crackdown that followed the previous dissent.

Saturday's rallies had been planned well before the anti-government protests that have hit the country over the past days.

Dozens arrested

Iranian news agencies said small anti-government protests on Friday in Tehran and the western earthquake-shaken city of Kermanshah were dispersed by police, apparently with scattered arrests.

Fifty-two people were detained in the second most populous city, Mashhad, for chanting "harsh slogans."

Protests were also reported in Sari and Rasht in the north, Qazvin west of Tehran and Qom south of the capital, as well as in Hamadan in western Iran. 

Unverified video footage appeared to show protesters clashing with police and basij militia of the Revolutionary Guard.

Rouhani under pressure

Renewed anti-government sentiment could present a challenge to President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who was re-elected earlier this year after presiding over a 2015 deal with world powers to curb Iran's nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

However, the sanctions relief and Rouhani's economic and social policies have failed to meet many Iranians' expectations. 

Unemployment is high, especially among the youth, and socioeconomic inequality has increased. Corruption is rampant and hardliners maintain control over vast swaths of the economy. 

One source of anger this week is apparently a steep rise in egg prices. The government attributes it to the culling of millions of chickens diagnosed with avian flu.

Read more: Doing business in Iran: no easy choice

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (irna.ir)

Rouhani faces pressure to fix economy

How did protests start? 

The protests started on Thursday in the northeastern city of Mashhad, an important Shiite religious center. 

Video footage from Thursday's protest in Mashhad showed demonstrators condemning the country's leaders while others shouted "Leave Syria, think about us" and "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran."

Iran's involvement in regional conflicts includes its backing for Syria's President Bashar al Assad, militarily and financially, as well as the movements Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Some Iranians are upset that the regime spends money abroad in military operations and supporting Shiite groups at the expense of addressing domestic issues. 

Riot police were out in the streets of Kermanshah to control protests.

Riot police were out in the streets of Kermanshah to control protests.

Hardliners vs. Rouhani

Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a close Rouhani ally, suggested the anti-government protests were organized by hardliners within the regime. 

"Some incidents in the country these days are on the pretext of economic problems, but it seems there is something else behind them," Jahangiri said in comments carried by state broadcaster IRIB.  "They think by doing this they harm the government," he said, but "it will be others who ride the wave."

Iranian analysts have suggested hardliners may have organized protests in Mashhad that have gotten out of control and spread to other towns. 

'Counter-revolutionaries'

IRNA on Friday quoted prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda as accusing "a small group" of taking advantage of Thursday's anti-government protest.

"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," said Alamolhoda.

Mashhad governor Mohammad Rahim Norouzian was quoted by IRNA as saying the protests were organized by "counter-revolutionaries."

Trump responds 

US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to comment on the protests. 

Some Iran observers have said that US support of protests is likely to be counterproductive, as it provides the regime ammunition to level claims that they are backed by foreign powers.  

The protests are still small compared to the large-scale Green Movement opposition protests following the 2009 election that ultimately resulted in a severely weakened pro-reform camp. 

mm,cw/tj (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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