Thousands of pro-regime Iranians took part in state-organised rallies on Wednesday in some of the cities and towns that have been rocked by street protests over the past six days.
The state-organised demonstrations — billed as 「uprising against riots」 — were held in cities across the country including Ilam, Ahvaz, Kermanshah, Qom, Arak and Abadan. Protesters chanted 「Death to the US」 as they marched.
Such demonstrations are used by the government to demonstrate its popular support and provide justification for any crackdown against dissent.
The anti-government protests have largely eased in the big cities but continued in some small towns on Tuesday evening. In some towns in the central province of Isfahan, including Lenjan and Khomeini Shahr, demonstrators attacked state buildings and tried to seize police stations.
Meanwhile, France announced that the planned visit to Tehran later this week by foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had been postponed.
On Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Iran』s 「enemies」 for stoking the biggest protests against the Islamic regime in almost a decade.
In his first comments since the unrest erupted last week, the supreme leader said Iran』s foes had 「closed ranks to make problems for the Islamic system」. He said they were using 「money, weapons, politics and security apparatuses」 to foment the protests.
Mr Khamenei did not identify the 「enemies」 to whom he was referring. But Ali Shamkhani, the regime』s top security official, said on Monday that the protests were a proxy war through social media guided by the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia against Iran.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Tuesday that 「the UN must speak」 on the issue. She said the US would be calling for emergency sessions of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council over the coming days. She added that 「nowhere is the urgency of peace, security and freedom being tested more than in Iran,」 and that US officials 「applaud the tremendous courage of the Iranian people」.
More than 20 people, including two teenagers and at least one policemen, are believed to have been killed, and hundreds detained since the demonstrations started in Mashhad, Iran』s second city. Unrest spread to towns and cities across the country, with protesters shouting slogans against Mr Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani, the president, while complaining about rising prices, poor living standards and corruption.
Tensions between the US and Iran have escalated as Donald Trump, the US president, has used increasingly belligerent rhetoric against the Islamic republic. He has accused Tehran of fuelling extremism in the Middle East and has threatened to tear up the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers. Tehran also accuses Saudi Arabia, its regional rival, of seeking to destabilise the Islamic republic.
Mr Trump has been addressing Iranians daily since Friday. In a post on Twitter on Tuesday, he said: 「The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their 『pockets』. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!」
Hossein Zolfaghari, Iran』s deputy interior minister, said on Tuesday that the protests had been 「curbed」 and would soon end. People were co-operating with the police and 「did not go along with saboteurs and those who disrupted public order」, local media reported him as saying.
「Police and security forces practised tolerance as long as state and private properties and military bases were not attacked. But they firmly dealt with those who resorted to violence,」 Mr Zolfaghari said.
A Tehran official said that by Tuesday, 450 people had been arrested in the capital during three days of protests. 「Some protesters were disturbing citizens, forcing them [to] get out of taxis and buses . . . or setting fire to taxis,」 said Ali-Asghar Naser-Bakht, Tehran』s deputy governor. 「On Monday, protests were more scattered and there were fewer protesters.」
Mousa Ghazanfar-Abadi, head of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, which deals with security threats, said the punishment for demonstrators would be heavier from now on.
「Some of those arrested could face charges of Moharebeh [fighting God] or acting against national security because they are linked to foreign intelligence services,」 said Mr Ghazanfar-Abadi. 「Some betrayers who we were long looking for were finally arrested during these skirmishes.」
Mohammad Javad Zarif, foreign minister, said in a Twitter post: 「Iran』s security and stability depend on its own people, who — unlike the peoples of Trump』s regional 『bffs』 [best friends] — have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction.」
On Monday, Mr Rouhani called for unity, urging Iran』s political and military forces to speak with 「one voice」 to ensure the survival of 「the political system, national interest and stability of our country and the region」.
In comments to MPs, the president condemned violent protests but said he recognised people』s right to attend peaceful rallies. 「Our great nation has seen such incidents a lot before and will easily pass by them,」 he said.
The streets of Tehran and other cities remained tense. On Monday evening, security forces restricted traffic in central Tehran and prevented gatherings. But protests continued in other parts of the country, in small towns in particular.
People in more than a dozen towns and cities have called for the removal of political leaders, whom they accused of corruption. Demonstrators chanted 「death to the dictator」 and 「death to Rouhani」, and set fire to public and private property, including banks and cars.
Iranian television reports said six people had been killed in Tuyserkan in the western province of Hamedan in 「suspicious shootings」, and three in Shahinshahr in the central province of Isfahan. Two people died in clashes in Izeh in the southern province of Khuzestan, said Hedayatollah Khademi, the local MP. Local media said four people were killed in Dorud in the west, including a 12-year-old boy.
In Najafabad, Isfahan province, one policeman was killed, according to state media, and other reports suggested two members of the Revolutionary Guards had also been killed. Rajanews, a news agency close to Iran』s hardliners, said six people had been killed in Qahderijan, also in Isfahan province, after a clash between security forces and protesters trying to seize the governor』s office.
The central government has not yet confirmed the death toll.
The unrest comes as the economy, struggling with youth unemployment of 25 per cent and inflation of 10 per cent, has been showing signs of improvement following reforms and the lifting of many international sanctions under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.