Mass pro-govt rallies follow price protests in Iran

Monitoring Desk

TEHRAN: Thousands gather across Iran to mark the anniversary of the end of “the sedition” – the last major unrest that followed disputed elections in 2009. The preplanned rallies take place as anti-government price protests spread across the country.

Annual nationwide pro-government rallies attended by thousands were held in Iran on Saturday to mark the end of the unrest that shook the country in 2009, state media reported, a day after price protests turned political in a dozen cities.

The pre-planned rallies came just after anti-government protests spread from Mashhad on Thursday to numerous towns across the country on Friday.

State television showed a rally in the capital Tehran and marchers carrying banners in support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran’s second largest city of Mashhad and elsewhere to mark the anniversary of the end of “the sedition” – the last major unrest that followed disputed elections in 2009.

The Revolutionary Guards, which along with its Basij militia spearheaded a crackdown against protesters in 2009, said in a statement carried by state media that there were efforts to repeat that year’s unrest but added: “The Iranian nation … will not allow the country to be hurt.” State television said rallies were scheduled to be held in more than 1,200 cities and towns on Saturday. The events have been held annually since 2009.

Many angry demonstrators had protested in many cities across Iran on Thursday and Friday, including the second-largest city of Mashhad, over rising food prices and inflation.

“The country is facing serious challenges with unemployment, high prices, corruption, lack of water, social gap, unbalanced distribution of budget,” wrote Hesamoddin Ashena, cultural adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, on Twitter.

“People have the right for their voice to be heard.”

52 people were arrested in Mashhad on Thursday, the first day of the protests, which also took place in other areas and spread to the capital Tehran as well as Kerm-anshah the following day.

Tehran’s deputy provincial governor Mohsen Hamedani said “less than 50 people” had gathered in one of the city’s squares and several had been arrested after refusing to move on, according to the reformist newspaper Etamad.

He said they were “under the influence of propaganda” and were “unaware that the majority of these calls to protest come from abroad.”

Police also arrested a small number of demonstrators in Tehran protesting price hikes and the president’s economic policy.

The US condemned the arrest of protesters, telling Tehran that “the world is watching”.

“Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” President Donald Trump tweeted late Friday.

“Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves,” he wrote.

“The United States strongly condemns the arrest of peaceful protesters. We urge all nations to publicly support the Iranian people and their demands for basic rights and an end to corruption,” Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The outbreak of unrest reflects growing discontent over rising prices and alleged corruption, as well as concern about Iran’s costly involvement in regional conflicts su-ch as those in Syria and Iraq.

The rally in Kermanshah appeared larger – with hundreds shown protesting in videos shared on social media – and was reportedly focused on those who lost money in the collapse of unauthorised lending institutions in recent years.

“Protesters asked for clarifications on the fate of their accounts and police dealt with them with tolerance despite them having no permission to protest,” Tasnim news agency reported.

Videos published by media group Nazar showed people chanting “Death to Rouhani,” while others shouted, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran,” reflecting anger in some circles that the government is too focused on regional politics rather than tackling domestic problems.

There has also been anger at welfare cuts and fuel price increases in the latest budget announced earlier this month.

One lawmaker said these protests were also rooted in the collapse of credit institutions and other financial scandals.

Unauthorised lending institutions mushroomed under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad due to weak regulation of the banking sector.

An uncontrolled construction boom left many banks and credit companies stuck with toxic debts. This, combined with soaring inflation and the chaos caused by international sanctions, pushed many to default on their debts.

Since coming to power in 2013, Rouhani has shut down three of the biggest new credit institutions – Mizan, Fereshtegan and Samen al Hojaj. He tasked the central bank with reimbursing lost deposits, but many are still waiting for compensation.

Mashhad was among the areas hardest hit by the closure of Mizan, which had around one million accounts, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Kermanshah was particularly affected by problems at another credit institution, Caspian, according to Tasnim agency. Who is behind the price protests?

Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri suggested hardline opponents of the government may be behind the demonstrations, which reportedly remained small on Friday.

“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.”

The economy has improved since the landmark 2015 nuclear deal lifted sanctions on the country, but the benefits have yet to trickle down to Iranians. The prices of many basic goods, including eggs, have recently increased by 30 to 40 percent.

Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leilaz told The Associated Press on Thursday that Rouhani’s political rivals may have played a role in organising the protests.

“The hands of political groups could be seen in (Thursday’s) gathering in Mashhad,” said Leilaz.