Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that “people have the right to criticize” and carry out demonstrations, but that is “different from violence and destroying public properties.” It was the first comment by Rouhani about the protests that began Thursday over rising prices and have taken on a decidedly more political tone as the days progressed and led to the death of at least two demonstrators Saturday night.
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Rouhani acknowledged that there were problems that needed to be resolved but said there was no way his government would tolerate violence. At least 200 people were arrested in Tehran alone on Saturday and it isn’t clear how many demonstrators were arrested in the provinces, where the anti-establishment protests have been even larger than in Tehran.
Rouhani also took the opportunity to harshly criticize President Donald Trump, who has taken to Twitter several times over the past few days to praise the Iranian protests. “This gentleman in America, who is now trying to sympathize with our nation, appears to have forgotten that he called the Iranian nation terrorists several months ago,” Rouhani said. “This man, who is an enemy of the Iranian nation from the top of his head to his very toes, has no right to sympathize with Iranians.”
Video on social media showed a much smaller crowd gathering in Tehran on Sunday chanting “death to the dictator.” Police used water cannons to disperse the protesters. Across the country it seemed protests continued and there were also images of riot police firing tear gas on demonstrators. Earlier in the day, authorities said they had restricted access to Instagram and messaging app Telegram that appear to have been key to organize the anti-establishment protests.
While many have compared these protests to what took place in 2009, when demonstrators took to the streets following a disputed election, the key difference is that these protests didn’t start in large, cosmopolitan cities but in smaller towns across the country. These protesters also don’t seem tied to any political faction and that could make an increase in violence more likely. BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi explains why:
The protesters’ lack of any patron within the political elite could lower the cost of using violence against them. There were already reports and video suggesting the security forces were rapidly gathering equipment and personnel to crack down. The Iranian government has many arrows in its quiver, including the special riot police, the plainclothes Basij militia, which answers to the Revolutionary Guard, and violent religious zealots with informal ties to the security forces. In 2009 rumors surfaced that the members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia were being deployed to crack down on protesters in the capital and other major cities. Eight years later, not only does Iran have access to Hezbollah, it has also formed new groups drawn from Shia in Iraq and Afghanistan and has shown a willingness to deploy them in ambitious ways.
BBC Persian’s Kasra Naji also highlights that no one is quite sure where the protests will lead in part because “there is no obvious leadership.” While some have called for “the return of the monarchy and the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, who lives in exile in the United States,” it seems “he is as much in the dark about where these protests are going as anyone else.”