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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed "enemies" of the country for trying to weaken the Islamic regime. At least 21 people have been killed in six days of anti-government protests.
Protesters in Iran took to the streets across dozens of cities for a sixth night Tuesday in what has become the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime in years.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed "enemies" in his first comments on the protests that started last Thursday.
"The enemies have united and are using all their means, money, weapons, policies and security services to create problems for the Islamic regime," the supreme leader said in remarks on state television. "The enemy is always looking for an opportunity and any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation."
Khamenei, who has the most power in Iran's dual clerical-republic system, did not specifically name the enemy.
However, he was likely referring the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and People's Mujahedeen (MEK), a France-based opposition group.
President Hassan Rouhani also called French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday to urge him to stop hosting the "terrorist" MEK, which Rouhani accused of inciting violence. Macron said he was worried about "the number of victims from the demonstrations" and called for respect the right to protest and freedom of expression.
Moderates and reformers led by Rouhani have said people have the right to peacefully protest against economic woes and the government should be open to criticism.
But they along with the hardline security establishment also warned authorities would crack down on any violence after some protesters attacked government buildings and banks. A least one police officer was killed.
US continues to apply pressure
Iran also accused the United States of inflaming and inciting the protests.
US President Donald Trump continued to tweet on the protests despite criticism from many Iran experts that his comments are counterproductive.
He said the "people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime."
It was unclear how Iranians viewed Trump's comments, but many are wary of the US president over his travel ban on Iranians and opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted international sanctions in exchange for curbing Iran's nuclear program.
US secondary sanctions and threats to pull out of the nuclear deal despite Tehran's compliance have contributed to Iran not fully benefiting from the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the United States called for the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council to meet to discuss the situation in Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Trump's criticism by pointing out that America's Gulf Arab allies have restrictive political systems with no rights to vote or protests.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Trump should focus on his own country's problems.
"It is better for him to try to address the US internal issues like the murder of scores killed on a daily basis in the United States during armed clashes and shootings, as well as millions of the homeless and hungry people in the country," Ghasemi said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
What are the protests about?
The protests started on December 28 in Mashhad and unexpectedly spread to dozens of cities across the country. State media reported that at least 21 people have been killed and several hundred arrested.
Analysts have suggested hardliners in Mashhad organized the protests against their rival Rouhani, but that the protests then unexpectedly spread into a backlash against the entire regime.
What makes the protests unprecedented is their scale and geographic scope, taking place in provincial areas as well as Tehran. They also appear to be leaderless and driven in large part by poorer sections of society, angry about high unemployment, soaring prices and financial scandals.
Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari said 90 percent of the detainees were under 25, making them too young to have participated in the 2009 Green Movement.
Those massive protests found support among middle-class Iranians angry over voter fraud in the 2009 election and were led by reformist election candidates.
The 2009 protests were also largely centered in Tehran, unlike this current round of protests which is stronger in provincial areas.
Many of the protest chants are calling for the downfall of the entire Islamic regime, unlike the 2009 protesters who sought to strengthen reformists and work within the system.
cw/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)