Mass rallies in Iran in support of government

Tens of thousands of people across Iran have attended preplanned pro-government rallies as officials warned against “illegal gatherings” following days of protests sparked by anger over the country’s economy.

State TV aired footage on Saturday showing people in several cities waving flags and carrying banners bearing the image of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The large demonstrations, which are held every year, were organised weeks ago to mark the end of unrest following the country’s 2009 election.

This year, however, they took on new significance, offering a show of support for Iran’s leadership after anti-government protests gripped a number of cities.

Triggered by the high cost of living, protesters took to the streets to denounce a surge in the prices of basic foods, the sluggish economy and unemployment.

The protests first broke out on Thursday in Masshad, Iran’s second-largest city, before reportedly spreading to the capital, Tehran, and other major cities on Friday. Dozens of arrests were also reported.

On Saturday, small crowds of protesters rallied for a third day in Tehran, Shahr-e Khord and Kermanshah, according to photos and videos posted on social media. 

The rallies appeared to take place despite Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli calling on people earlier in the day not to participate in what he called “illegal gatherings”. 

Semi-state news agency Fars reported confrontations between police and protesters at the Tehran University. 

Also on Saturday, Iran hit back at the US after President Donald Trump said Tehran “should respect its people’s right to express themselves”.

“The world is watching!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post late on Friday, while also accussing  Iran’s government of corruption and funding “terrorism abroad”.

In response, Bahram Qassemi, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, called the US president’s warnings “cheap, worthless and invalid”, according to the semi-state news agency Fars.

“Iranian people feel no value for the opportunistic claims of the US officials and Mr. Trump, himself”, Qassemi was quoted as saying.

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‘Iranians will reject US statements’

Under Trump’s administration, Washington and Tehran have grown further apart, clashing on foreign policy issues such as the wars in Syria and Yemen and over the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Some analysts rejected the US’ comments as simply driven by politics.

Trita Parsi, founder and president of the Washington, DC-based National Iranian American Council, said: “The fastest way to discredit these legitimate grievances expressed by the Iranian people, is for Trump to throw himself into the mix.”

Amir Handjani, a New York-based fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said: “Anything the Trump administration says about Iran (even if it may be remotely credible) will be rejected by the vast majority of Iranians, given his position on a whole host of issues that touch on Iranian prestige and national interests.”

Clashes between police and protesters were reported at the Tehran University on Saturday [AFP]

Iranian officials have long blamed US sanctions for the country’s sluggish economy. While many of these economic measures were lifted after the 2015 nuclear deal, some unilateral US sanctions remain.

Eshaq Jahangiri, first vice president of Iran, said that while some protesters were rallying against high prices, others were set on derailing the government.

“All economic indications in the country are good. Yes, there is an increase in the prices of some products and the government is working on fixing causes of high prices,” he said.

“The people behind what is taking place think they will be able to harm the government. But when social movements and protests start in the street, those who have ignited them are not always able to control them.”

Commenting on the anti-government rallies, Nader Hashemi, who heads Middle East studies at the University of Denver, said Iranians were frustrated about the lack of accountability from their leaders.

“It’s really the linking of Iran’s regional foreign policy – in Syria in particular – with the economic grievances that many people are feeling,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Many Iranians … do not understand why Iran has invested so heavily in regional foreign policy adventurism to the detriment of Iran’s own internal economic problems.”

A large section of society believes there is “no accountability over where money is being spent”, he said.

“The hardline elements of the regime are probably going to blame protests on foreign conspiracies. The real question is what will the Iranian government do and say in the coming days in response [to the protests]?”