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Pro-Government Supporters Take To Iran's Streets In Wake Of Antigovernment Protests

Islamic Republic of Iran News Network state TV on January 3 shows pro-government demonstrators in the streets of the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz.

Tens of thousands of Iranians have rallied in support of the government in several cities following several days of protests and deadly clashes between demonstrators and security forces that have left at least 22 dead.

Iran's state-run English-language Press TV broadcast live footage of the pro-government rallies on January 3, showing demonstrators with Iranians flags and signs supporting the clerically overseen government, which appears to have been caught off-guard by the strength and breadth of the upheaval.

The state television reports included footage of pro-government rallies in the towns of Ahvaz, Kermanshah, and Gorgan, with demonstrators decrying violence that erupted in the strongest challenge to Iran's leadership in almost a decade.

A day after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran's "enemies" of fomenting the unrest, marchers voiced their support for the supreme leader, chanting: "The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader" and "We will not leave our leader alone."

European leaders and the United States have condemned the "unacceptable loss of human lives" and the arrests of hundreds of antigovernment protesters.

Germany's government on January 3 said the protesters "have our respect" for "courageously" voicing their political and economic woes."

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters that Iranian authorities should respond proportionately to peaceful demonstrators and to initiate dialogue with them.

Washington has responded more sharply, saying Tehran should allow peaceful protesters to freely express their grievances. The United States has also called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, though no date for such a meeting has been set.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said "the enemies of Iran," including the United States, have fomented the antigovernment demonstrations through their "money, weapons, politics, and intelligence services."

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Iran's government has blocked access to social media to disrupt the spread of information about the antigovernment protests, which are the biggest challenge to authorities in Tehran in almost a decade.

Iran's oil sector has been boosted by a nuclear deal with the West that lifted international sanctions, but most ordinary Iranians haven't seen their situation improve because other parts of the economy continue to stagnate.

Inflation and unemployment, especially among younger Iranians, are on the rise.

WATCH: Some residents of Tehran described their financial struggles as days of antiestablishment protests took place in dozens of towns and cities across Iran.

Tehran Residents Share Economic Grievances Amid Protests
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Antigovernment protesters have also been demonstrating against alleged government corruption and mismanagement.

The demonstrations have been 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 had been arrested so far.

Other cities where demonstrations have taken place include Sanandaj, Ilam, Khoramdareh, Kermanshah, Izeh, Ahvaz, Shahin Shahr, and Tuyserkan.

There were no reports of deaths during protests that took place on January 2.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said during a telephone call with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he hoped the antigovernment protests would end soon.

In a sign of a continued warming of relations between Turkey and its once bitter rival Iran, Erdogan told Rohani that while "peace and stability" had to be preserved, he also agreed that the right to protest should not lead to "violations of the law."

Iran and the United States have traded criticism over the protests, with President Donald Trump tweeting that the "brutal and corrupt Iranian regime" was failing "at every level."

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley praised the courage of the demonstrators and rejected claims by Iran's leadership that the protests were being driven by outside forces.

She said on January 2 that Iran's government "has a long history of murdering its own people who dare to speak the truth."

"Now the Iranian dictatorship is trying to do what it always does, which is to say that the protests were designed by Iran's enemies. We all know that's complete nonsense," Haley said.

"The demonstrations are completely spontaneous. They are virtually in every city in Iran. This is the precise picture of a long oppressed peoples rising up against their dictators."

"We must not be silent," Haley said. "The people of Iran are crying out for freedom."

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iranians already enjoy the right to peaceful protest and asserted that the same freedom to demonstrate is denied to citizens of some U.S. allies in the Middle East.

French President Emmanuel Macron's office said Macron expressed concern to Iranian President Hassan Rohani in a January 2 phone conversation and urged "restraint and appeasement" toward protesters.

Rohani's office said he asked Macron to take action against a Paris-based Iranian opposition group called Mujahedin-e Khalq (aka People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran), which he accused of fomenting the protests.

The Iranian resistance group issued a statement saying Iran's clerical rulers were "panicking" in the face of the widespread protests.

Iran's reformist politicians have also blamed the violence on "the enemies of Iran."

A statement on January 2 by the Association of Religious Combatants, a group headed by reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, said "opportunists and troublemakers have exploited the demonstrations to create problems."

The statement said "the United States and their agents…have encouraged the troublemakers and the violent actions."

Numerous videos of the protests showed crowds of people chanting "Death to the dictator!" while video posted by RFE/RL's Radio Farda showed security forces using water cannons to disperse protesters at Tehran's central Ferdowsi Square.

Social-media videos from other 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 Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since 1989.

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.

While Rohani has acknowledged some of the problems that have sparked the protests, there are signs the authorities are ready to crack down harder on those taking to the streets.

The Intelligence Ministry has said that "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 the popular social-media application Instagram and a widely used messaging app in Iran called Telegram.

Both applications are 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.

With reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and Press TV