TEHRAN — Orchestrated, pro-government rallies were held throughout Iran on Wednesday, after nearly a week of protests over the ailing economy and the suppression of individual rights.
The demonstrations received copious coverage in the Iranian state media, apparently in an effort to demonstrate the clerical government’s depth of support, after 21 people were killed and hundreds more arrested as unrest erupted in provincial areas and, to a far lesser extent, in Tehran.
Demonstrators waved Iranian flags and photographs of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many carried placards saying “Death to seditionists” and chanted slogans like, “We offer the blood in our veins to our leader.”
Anti-government demonstrations started Thursday in the city of Mashhad and quickly spread to other parts of the country. Dissatisfaction is running high over rampant unemployment, inflation, and the general state of the economy, but also about the lack of freedoms in entertainment and personal matters.
The protests have surprised Iran’s establishment, which has been slow to respond. Organizing mass rallies with exhortations and various inducements is a favorite tactic, a tried-and-true method to bolster the state’s legitimacy.
While President Trump has been cheering on the protesters in a series of Twitter posts, other Western powers have been more circumspect, fearful of lending weight to hard-liners’ contentions that the unrest is being stirred by outside forces. In keeping with that approach, the European Union urged Tehran in a statement late Tuesday to recognize Iranians’ right to peaceful protest and to resolve the issues without resorting to violence.
“We expect all concerned to refrain from violence and the right of expression to be guaranteed, also in light of the statements made by the Iranian government,” by the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said in the statement.
There is no guarantee that warning will be heeded. A lawmaker from the provincial city of Shahin Shahr said Wednesday that three protesters who died in a demonstration on New Year’s Eve had been shot.
“Forensic examination has shown that the slain individuals had been shot at close range,” the lawmaker, Hossein Ali Haji-Deligani, told the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency. “According to the information we have, they were in their late 20s — between 29 to 30 years old — and they were from protesters’ groups.”
In Isfahan, a central city, pro-government demonstrators on Wednesday marched and shouted slogans against the United States, which Khamenei has blamed, along with other “enemies of Iran,” for instigating the protests.
“In recent events, enemies of #Iran have allied & used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics &intelligence services, to trouble the Islamic Republic,” he said on Twitter. “The enemy is always looking for an opportunity & any crevice to infiltrate &strike the Iranian nation.”
The government acted against one of those supposed enemies Wednesday, with the arrest of an unidentified European citizen who “had been trained by espionage organizations in Europe,” according to the Tasnim news agency, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Citing Hamid Reza Bolhassani, a judicial official in the western province of Lorestan, Tasnim reported that the individual had “led rioters” in the town of Borujerd. It did not say when the arrest was made.
Khamenei has been a principal target of the anti-government demonstrators, who have torn down posters bearing his portrait and demanded his removal from power. That is a particularly dangerous challenge under the Iranian political system, in which the supreme leader is considered nearly sacred, the official representative of God on earth.
Iran’s state-run English-language broadcaster, Press TV, carried Wednesday’s pro-government rallies live Wednesday, proclaiming that they were intended to “protest the violence that has taken place over the last few nights in cities.”
Anti-government demonstrations flared in several cities Wednesday, videos posted on social media seemed to show. In Khomeynishahr, where a 13-year-old boy was killed on Monday, protesters set fire to a seminary; demonstrations were also reported in Shiraz, Kazerun, Lenjan, and Rasht.