Demonstrators chanted anti-government slogans in several cities across Iran on Friday, as protests against alleged corruption and rising prices turned into the largest wave of demonstrations since nationwide pro-reform unrest in 2009.
Police dispersed anti-government demonstrators in the western city of Kermanshah as spontaneous protests spread to Tehran and apparently several other cities, a day after rallies in the north-east, the semi-official news agency Fars said.
The outbreak of unrest reflects growing discontent over rising prices and alleged corruption, as well as concern over the country’s costly involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria and Iraq.
An official said a few protesters had been arrested in Tehran, and videos posted on social media showed a heavy police presence and demonstrations in a number of othercities.
About 300 demonstrators gathered in Kermanshah after what Fars said was a “call by the anti-revolution”. They shouted “Political prisoners should be freed” and “Freedom or death”, and some public property was destroyed. Fars did not name any opposition groups.
The protests in Kermanshah, the main city in the region where an earthquake killed more than 600 people in November, took place a day after hundreds of people rallied in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, shouting anti-government slogans in protest against high prices.
Footage that could not be verified showed protests in other cities including Sari and Rasht in the north, Qom south of Tehran, and Hamadan in the west.
Mohsen Nasj Hamadani, the deputy security chief in Tehran province, said about 50 people had rallied in a square in the capital but that most had left after police asked them to do so. A few who refused were temporarily detained, the ILNA news agency reported.
A resident in the central city of Isfahan said protesters had joined a rally held by factory workers demanding back wages. The slogans quickly changed from the economy to target the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the resident said by telephone.
Purely political protests are rare in Iran. The last unrest of national significance occurred in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president ignited eight months of street protests. Pro-reform rivals said the vote was rigged.
Workers often organise demonstrations, however, over layoffs or non-payment of salaries, as do people who hold deposits in bankrupt financial institutions.
The prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda had called earlier for tough action against the protests. “If the security and law enforcement agencies leave the rioters to themselves, enemies will publish films and pictures in their media and say that the Islamic Republic system has lost its revolutionary base in Mashhad,” the state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
Alamolhoda, who is Khameini’s representative in north-eastern Mashhad, said a few people had taken advantage of Thursday’s protests against rising prices to chant slogans against Iran’s role in regional conflicts.
Tehran backs Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in his country’s civil war, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Social media videos showed demonstrators chanting: “Leave Syria, think about us.”
Iran’s vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, a close Rouhani ally, suggested hardline conservative opponents of the president might have triggered the protests.
“When a social and political movement is launched on the streets, those who started it will not necessarily be able to control it in the end,” IRNA quoted Jahangiri as saying. “Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers.”
Rouhani’s leading achievement, a 2015 deal with world powers that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most international sanctions, has yet to bring the broad economic benefits the government says are coming.
Unemployment stood at 12.4% in this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, up 1.4% from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.