Iranians have right to protest but must avoid violence, President Rouhani says

President Hassan Rouhani, giving his first public reaction to four days of anti-government protests, said Sunday that Iranians had the right to protest and criticize the authorities, but their actions should not lead to violence or damage public property.
 
“People are absolutely free to criticize the government and protest, but their protests should be in such a way as to improve the situation in the country and their life,” Rouhani was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as telling the cabinet. “Criticism is different from violence and damaging public properties.”

Rouhani also rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump‘s comments in support of the protests.

 
“This man in America who is sympathizing today with our people has forgotten that he called the Iranian nation 
terrorists a few months ago. This man who is against the Iranian nation to his core has no right to sympathize with Iranians,” Rouhani said.

Anti-government protesters demonstrated on Sunday in defiance of a warning by the authorities of a tough crackdown, 
extending for a fourth day one of the most audacious challenges to the clerical leadership since pro-reform unrest in 2009.
 
Tens of thousands of people have protested across the country since Thursday against Iran‘s unelected 
clerical elite and Iranian foreign policy in the region. They have also chanted slogans in support of political prisoners.

Two protesters taking part in demonstrations roiling Iran were killed at a rally overnight, authorities said Sunday, the first deaths attributed to the ongoing protests as the government blocked access to a popular messaging app used by activists.

The protests were fanned in part by messages sent on the Telegram messaging app, which authorities blocked Sunday, along with Instagram.

In Doroud, a city 325 kilometres southwest of Tehran in Iran‘s western Lorestan province, protesters gathered for an unauthorized rally that lasted into the night Saturday, said Habibollah Khojastepour, the security deputy of Lorestan‘s governor. The two protesters were killed in clashes at the rally, he said.

University students attended a protest inside Tehran University, where anti-riot Iranian police met them with smoke grenades. (Associated Press)

“The gathering was to be ended peacefully, but due to the presence of the [agitators], unfortunately, this happened,” Khojastepour said.

He did not offer a cause of death for the two protesters, but said “no bullets were shot from police and security forces at the people.”

Videos circulating on social media late Saturday appeared to show fallen protesters in Doroud as gunshots sounded in the background. The Associated Press could not immediately verify the footage.

Dozens arrested

Thousands have taken to the streets of cities across Iran, beginning on Thursday in Mashhad, the country‘s second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.

The protests in the Iranian capital, as well as Trump tweeting about them, raised the stakes. It also apparently forced state television to break its silence on Saturday, acknowledging it hadn‘t reported on the protests on orders from security officials.

At least 50 protesters have been arrested since Thursday, authorities said Saturday. State TV said some protesters chanted the name of the U.S.-backed shah, who fled into exile just before Iran‘s 1979 Islamic Revolution and later died.

The Iranian government has moved to restrict access to social media in the country in an apparent attempt to limit the organizing power of protesters. (Associated Press)

On Sunday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported that authorities have arrested some 80 protesters in the city of Arak, some 280 kilometres south of Tehran.

Iran‘s economy has improved since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars‘ worth of Western aircraft.

That improvement has not reached the average Iranian, however. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 per cent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 per cent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the economic protests.

Social media sites blocked

While the protests have sparked clashes, Iran‘s hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates have not intervened as they have in other unauthorized demonstrations since the 2009 election.

Some analysts outside Iran have suggested that may be because the economic protests initially just put pressure on the administration of Rouhani, a relative moderate whose administration struck the nuclear deal.

Many in Iran are learning about the protests and sharing images of them through Telegram, a mobile phone messaging app popular among the country‘s 80 million people. On Saturday, Telegram shut down one channel on the service over Iranian allegations it encouraged violence, something its moderator denied.

On Sunday, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that authorities had blocked access to the app.

“Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down … peacefully protesting channels,” he wrote.

Iran protests escalating as government crackdown looms4:27

Iran‘s state TV news website, iribnews.ir, quoted an anonymous source saying that social media in Iran would be temporarily limited as a safety measure.

“With a decision by the Supreme National Security Council, activities of Telegram and Instagram are temporarily limited,” the report said, without elaborating.

Global Affairs Canada weighed in on the street demonstrations. It said in a statement Saturday that Ottawa “is encouraged by the Iranian people who are exercising their basic right to protest peacefully,” and called for Iran‘s authorities “to uphold and respect democratic and human rights.”

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