Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the country's “enemies” of fomenting violent antigovernment demonstrations that have killed at least 22 people, including a police officer, in the biggest challenge to authorities in almost a decade.
In his first comments since the outbreak of protests on December 28, Khamenei accused the "enemies of Iran" of meddling in the country's affairs through their "money, weapons, politics, and intelligence services."
"The enemy is always looking for an opportunity & any crevice to infiltrate and strike the Iranian nation," he was quoted as saying in a post on his official website on January 2.
The comments come as international pressure builds in step with the rising death toll from the upheaval, putting further pressure on Iran’s leadership, which appears to have been caught off guard by the strength and breadth of the protests.
Video posted on social media showed demonstrators attacking a police station in the central town of Qahderijan. State TV reported on January 2 that six of the nine killed overnight were attempting to steal weapons during the attack on the town’s police station in Iran's central Isfahan Province, about 350 kilometers south of Tehran.
Tasnim reported the death of a security officer, who the semiofficial news agency said was killed by an armed demonstrator in the central city of Najafabad. If confirmed, it would be the first reported fatality among security forces during the widespread unrest.
Iran's economy has been on the upswing, largely due to a growing oil sector boosted by a nuclear deal with the West, but most other areas have been stagnating, with inflation and unemployment, especially among younger Iranians, on the rise.
Demonstrations were reportedly taking place in dozens of towns and cities throughout Iran, including several places in the capital, Tehran, where the deputy governor, Ali Asgar Naserbakht, said 450 people have been arrested so far.
Other cities where demonstrations have taken place include Sanandaj, Ilam, Khoramdareh, Kermanshah, Izeh, Ahvaz, Shahin Shahr, and Tuyserkan, where at least two protesters were reported killed.
Numerous videos showed some crowds of people chanting "Death to the dictator!" walking through the streets of Tehran.
Video posted by RFE/RL's Radio Farda showed security forces using water cannons to disperse protesters in Tehran, on the central Ferdowsi Square.
Other social-media videos from different Iranian cities showed clashes with security forces and a police station set alight. Crowds of marching protesters were shown shouting slogans against mullahs and other religious figures in the country.
Some demonstrators were seen tearing down huge street banners of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, who has ruled Iran since 1989.
The violence overnight brings the unofficial total to at least 22 dead since the demonstrations -- which started out as rallies against high inflation for basic food products and other economic woes -- began in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad.
President Hassan Rohani has called for unity in the country and said the unrest is an opportunity to address problems plaguing Iran, especially unemployment.
A spokesman for the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said on January 1 that police and internal security forces "fully control the situation in Tehran and other cities of Iran where street protests took place" and the IRGC personnel had not been involved.
Likewise, the Basij militia -- which along with the IRGC led the crackdown against the 2009 protests that left dozens dead -- has thus far appeared to stay away from the demonstrations.
Unemployment in Iran is about 12 percent but among the youth it reached 28.8 percent in 2017.
With younger Iranians better educated than in previous generations, many have grown frustrated by the political and economic constraints that are keeping them from achieving the improved lifestyle they see elsewhere in the world as they interact with peers on social media.
Despite Rohani's statements, there have been signs authorities are ready to crack down harder on those taking to the streets.
The Intelligence Ministry has said "rioters and instigators" had been identified "and will be dealt with seriously soon," and the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, was quoted on January 2 by Tasnim as saying that one of the charges protesters face can be "Moharebeh," or waging war against God, which carries the death penalty as a sentence.
The government has also blocked popular social-media application Instagram and a widely used messaging app in Iran called Telegram.
Both applications are popular among Iranians and useful in helping set up gathering points for demonstrators who are disappointed with rising prices and Rohani’s unfulfilled promises to guarantee rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
Ali Shamkhani, Iranian Supreme National Security Council secretary, blamed the violence on social media and said some foreign countries were interfering in his country's domestic affairs.
"Hashtags and messages about the situation in Iran come from the United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia," he said on January 1.
Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey have all expressed concern over the deaths of protesters and urged the Iranian government to respect people's rights.
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a tweet that "we expect the right to peaceful demonstration & freedom of expression will be guaranteed" in Iran.
The harshest criticism has come from the United States, with President Donald Trump tweeting on January 1 that the upheaval shows Iran is “failing at every level” and that it was “TIME FOR CHANGE!”
“The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted,” he wrote.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on January 1 that the unrest was "Iran's internal affair," adding that any "external interference destabilizing the situation is inadmissible."
Syria blamed the United States and Israel for destabilizing the region.
"Syria is confident that Iran's leadership, government and people will be able to defeat the conspiracy," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 2.
Iran has been a main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since conflict engulfed the country in 2011.
Rohani said on December 31 that citizens are “absolutely free” to criticize the authorities and protest, but he warned that those demonstrations should not make the public "feel concerned about their lives and security."
"Mr. Rohani says it's free for people to protest but we're scared of speaking. Even now, I'm scared of talking to you," Sarita Mohammadi, a 35-year-old teacher, told AFP on January 1.
Rohani has criticized Trump for his tweets, saying he "has forgotten that he had called Iranian people 'terrorists' a few months ago."
With reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Farda, Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa