Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday made his first attempt to quell growing public anger about the way the Islamic Republic is run, after four days of protests in several cities and towns turned bloody. Two protesters were shot dead ILNA news agency quoted a local parliament member as saying on Monday. The fatalities bring the number of dead during the recent protests to four.
Appealing for calm, Rouhani acknowledged that Iranians had the right to protest, but he warned that violence was unacceptable.
"We are a free country, and therefore the people have a right to express themselves," he said, addressing a cabinet meeting, adding that government should provide space for "legal criticism and protest." But "criticism is different to violence and destroying public property."
On Sunday evening, several hundred people gathered in the capital Tehran and the western city of Khorramabad in the fourth day of demonstrations, ignoring warnings of a crackdown on unlawful protests. Police fired water cannon to disperse demonstrators, images posted to social media showed.
The ILNA news agency cited a government official as saying that some 200 people were arrested during Saturday night's protests in Tehran.
The demonstrations, which started on Thursday, appear to be the largest since the Green Movement protests in the wake of the disputed 2009 presidential election. Concerns are rising that a repeat of the bloody crackdown that followed that period of dissent will take place.
What began as frustration over rising food prices and high unemployment has grown into wider discontent about the overall state of politics and religion, with a growing number of protesters calling on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down.
Others demanded that Iran's leaders deal with pressing issues at home, rather than spending what they say is vast amounts of money backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement.
Messaging apps blocked
As traditional media coverage in Iran is restricted, the public has largely relied on social media messages and videos — sometimes showing thousands of people on the streets — to keep up with the protests.
Some footage showed peaceful rallies, but others purportedly revealed protesters attacking banks and government buildings.
In response, authorities on Sunday restricted access to photo sharing and online messaging apps including Telegram, accusing them of emboldening the protest movement, which the government says is being run from overseas.
Trump and Rouhani exchange criticism
US President Donald Trump on Sunday tweeted his second comments on the protests, telling his followers that Iranians were putting the country's leaders on notice.
"The people are finally 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. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!" Trump wrote.
His public criticism of Rouhani forced the Iranian president onto the defensive. Rouhani said the US leader had "no right" to side with Iranian protesters who he has previously called terrorists.
"This man who today in America wants to sympathize with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called the nation of Iran terrorist," Rouhani said. "This person whose whole being is against the nation of Iran has no right to feel pity for the people of Iran."
Trump has led international criticism of the Iranian regime and has even threatened to tear up a landmark nuclear deal, agreed between world powers and Iran in 2015, that reversed international sanctions in return for Tehran scaling back its nuclear ambitions.
mm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)