The top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday that the biggest anti-regime protests in almost a decade had ended as thousands of people attended rallies in a state-organised display of support for the Islamic republic.
More than 20 people, including at least three security officers, have been killed and hundreds arrested in six days of unrest that spread across the country.
“Today, I can say, is the end of this sedition,” Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari was quoted as saying by a state-run news agency. “Our [good] security status and people’s prudence caused the enemy to experience another failure.”
Regime leaders have portrayed the unrest as part of a foreign conspiracy led by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But analysts say the protests were sparked by anger over economic conditions, corruption and disillusionment with the government. The demonstrations began after thousands of people took part in a peaceful rally in Mashhad, Iran’s second city, on Thursday to protest rising living costs.
The unrest rapidly spread to dozens of towns and cities across the country, with thousands of people shouting chants against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and President Hassan Rouhani.
The protesters’ slogans switched from complaints about the economic situation to calls for the establishment of an “Iranian republic” in which clerics, who came to power after the 1979 Islamic revolution, would no longer rule. They also criticised Iran’s expensive military interventions in the Syrian civil war and Iraq.
The demonstrations were the biggest challenge to the regime since mass protests erupted in Tehran in 2009 after disputed elections.
Sporadic protests have continued in small towns, often turning violent with reports of protesters attacking banks and police stations.
Gen Jafari said 15,000 people participated in the protests. The government has not given a death toll, or acknowledged that any protesters were killed by security forces. Gen Jafari said “seditionists and their masters” wanted to “kill children and adults to blame the Islamic state”.
The unrest has exposed the divisions between rival factions within the regime at a time when US President Donald Trump has ramped up pressure on Iran and threatened to tear up the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.
Reformist politicians said the first protest in Mashhad was orchestrated by hardliners in order to undermine Mr Rouhani, a pragmatist who sealed the nuclear deal and has been tentatively pushing for economic reforms. The reformists did not identify which group in the opposition camp they believed was responsible, but said those behind the protests were playing a dangerous game that threatened the entire system.
Gen Jafari said security forces were probing the role of a “former official” in the Mashhad protests, which “if confirmed,” would “definitely lead to a proportionate act” against him.
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Pro-reform analysts said they believed some of the anger has been stoked by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a hardliner who has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of senior regime officials since his two terms as president ended in 2013. In recent weeks, he has alleged that the heads of the judiciary and parliament and their associates were involved in corruption and espionage against the country.
The pro-reform analysts say Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s allegations have emboldened people to protest against regime leaders.
As president, he pursued populist policies and drew his support from poorer Iranians. Reformists blame him for causing many of Iran’s economic problems as sanctions against the Islamic republic were tightened during his presidency and the country was plunged into a deep recession.
Hamid Baghaei, a former vice-president under Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, said last month that he had been sentenced to 63 years in jail on financial charges. He said the charges were baseless, and the judiciary gave no details of the case.
The pro-regime rallies — billed as an “uprising against riots” — were held in cities across the country on Wednesday. Protesters chanted “death to the US” and “death to Israel” as they marched.
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