Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday acknowledged the grievances of protesters who have held widespread demonstrations across the country over the past four days, saying that Iranians have the right to criticize the government and that those who took to the streets were angry over economic corruption that has long plagued the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani addressed the nation in his first comments since anti-government unrest began on Thursday, in the largest protests since an uprising over disputed election results shook the nation in 2009.
From the capital, Tehran, to Kermanshah in the west and the holy city of Qom in the north, Iranians defied police to vent frustration against a government that allows limited space for political dissent.
Rouhani called on protesters to refrain from violence and damaging government property. After a night of escalating unrest saw attacks on government buildings and violent confrontations with police, the moderate president, reelected to a second term in May, took a conciliatory tone.
In stunning scenes, Iranian protesters chanted “Death to the dictator!” as they tore down posters of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds absolute authority in Iran. Public criticism of Khamenei is generally taboo.
Even as Rouhani attempted to mollify protesters, authorities said they blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram on Sunday in a move aimed at blunting the demonstrations.
Two demonstrators were killed over the weekend, an official said. Local media showed images of police firing a water cannon at protesters in central Tehran. About 200 people were arrested in the capital on Saturday, officials said.
The demonstrations were sparked by economic woes but swiftly expanded to target a system that many protesters have said is corrupt and incapable of reform. The protests appear to have caught Iran’s leadership off guard.
“Iranians understand the sensitive situation of Iran and the region and will act based on national interests,” Rouhani said, according to the Mehr news agency.
He also fired back at President Donald Trump, who has posted about the protests three times over the past few days.
“Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism,” Trump said Sunday. “Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”
Rouhani said that “those who called Iranians terrorists have no business sympathizing with our nation,” the Reuters news agency reported.
Authorities were “temporarily” blocking Instagram and Telegram, social media apps that are popular with Iranians, to “maintain peace,” state television said Sunday. Many demonstrators had used the apps to share and upload videos from the protests.
Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that Iran was “blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down . . . peacefully protesting channels.”
Iranian authorities also warned protesters that they would be held to account for breaking the law.
“Those who damage public property and create disorder are accountable before the law and must pay the price,” Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said Sunday, according to state media.
An official in western Iran confirmed the deaths of two demonstrators who protesters said had been shot. The official deputy governor of Lorestan province, Habibollah Khojastehpour, suggested that they had been shot either by “foreign agents” or by Sunni militants who he claimed infiltrated the area.
“No bullets were shot from police and security forces at the people,” Khojastehpour said Sunday on state television, The Associated Press reported.
Both reformists and conservatives struggled to respond to the demonstrations with a unified message. Each side has blamed the other, while the camps are internally split over the legitimacy of the protests.
Allies of Rouhani, including Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, initially suggested that his political opponents had orchestrated the demonstrations. But as the protests escalated, and many chanted for the return of Iran’s monarchy, several conservatives disavowed the protesters and called for a tougher response.
Rouhani has come under fire for a perceived failure to deliver on key economic promises he made after reaching a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. International sanctions on Iran were lifted as part of the deal.
Iran’s economy has indeed grown, and the International Monetary Fund has forecast real GDP growth reaching 4.2 percent in 2017-2018. But that boost has largely been due to renewed oil exports, and growth unrelated to the oil sector has lagged significantly.
“The trickle-down economics, there’s no sign of it,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Indeed, inflation has crept up to nearly 10 percent this year, and the cost of basic foodstuffs has risen, economists say.
“This is a very sensitive moment for Rouhani,” Vatanka said. “Here’s a guy who basically came into the presidency as someone who was going to be the champion of the reform cause in Iran.
“But these protests show that he’s not a champion of the people,” Vatanka said. “And Iranians feel like they’ve been played.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham