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article imageMass pro-government rallies in Iran after protests

By Ali Noorani and Eric Randolph (AFP)     Dec 30, 2017 in World

Tens of thousands of regime supporters marched in cities across Iran on Saturday in a show of strength for the regime after two days of angry protests directed against the country's religious rulers.

State television showed huge crowds of black-clad supporters gathering in the capital Tehran, second city Mashhad and elsewhere to mark the anniversary of the end of "the sedition" -- the last major unrest that followed disputed elections in 2009.

The pre-planned rallies came just after anti-government protests, which had spread from Mashhad on Thursday to numerous towns across the country.

Initially aimed against high prices, the anti-government protests quickly turned against the Islamic regime as a whole.

Videos on social media showed hundreds marching through the holy city of Qom on Friday evening, with people chanting "Death to the dictator" and "Free political prisoners".

There were even chants in favour of the monarchy toppled by the Islamic revolution of 1979, while others criticised the regime for supporting the Palestinians and other regional movements rather than focusing on problems at home.

Footage of large-scale protests were shared from the cities of Rasht, Hamedan, Kermanshah, Qazvin and elsewhere, with police responding with water cannons.

Payam Parhiz, editor-in-chief of reformist media network Nazar that broke the news of the Mashhad protests, said there had been calls for protests in Tehran on Saturday.

"There may be some clashes, but after today probably not much will happen," he said.

"But it can't be predicted for sure as the recent protests have been a complete surprise."

- Trump warning -

While state television focused entirely on the pro-government rallies on Saturday, officials nonetheless warned against dismissing the public anger seen in recent days.

"The country is facing serious challenges with unemployment, high prices, corruption, lack of water, social gap, unbalanced distribution of budget," wrote Hesamoddin Ashena, cultural adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, on Twitter.

"People have the right for their voice to be heard."

An Iranian official said on Friday that 52 people had been arrested at the protests in Mashhad for chanting "harsh slogans".

Washington condemned the arrests, warning Tehran that "the world is watching".

"Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime's corruption and its squandering of the nation's wealth to fund terrorism abroad," President Donald Trump tweeted late Friday.

"Iranian govt should respect their people's rights, including right to express themselves," he wrote.

Since the 2009 protests were ruthlessly put down by the Revolutionary Guards, many middle-class Iranians have abandoned hope of pressing for change from the streets.

But low-level strikes and demonstrations have continued, often on a sector-by-sector basis as bus drivers or teachers or workers from specific factories protest against unpaid wages or poor conditions.

Some of this week's protests were directed against financial scandals linked to unauthorised lending institutions which collapsed with the loss of hundreds of thousands of accounts.

There has also been anger at welfare cuts and fuel price increases in the latest budget announced earlier this month.

Since taking power in 2013, Rouhani has sought to clean up the banking sector and kickstart the economy, but many say progress has been too slow.

Although conservatives have fiercely criticised Rouhani for the country's economic failings, they were already moving on Saturday to distinguish economic protests from wider attacks on the regime.

"The people who are protesting are vigilant and distance themselves from enemies of the system," said Mohsen Rezai, former Revolutionary Guards commander, on his Instagram page.

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