World News

Rouhani Urges Calm in Iran as Protests Continue

Posted December 31, 2017 4:11 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2017 4:15 p.m. EST

After four days of rare protests in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani tried to calm the nation Sunday, saying that people had the right to protest and acknowledging public worries over the economy and corruption.

“We are a free nation, and based on the constitution and citizenship rights, people are completely free to express their criticism and even their protest,” Rouhani said, according to the state-run PressTV.

He exhorted Iranians not to resort to violence, after reports of protesters attacking banks and municipal buildings across the nation, including a local government building in Tehran.

The protests are the first major demonstrations in Iran since 2009, when people took to the streets to challenge the results of a presidential election that kept a hard-liner in power and was widely regarded as fraudulent. Rouhani, a moderate, came to power in 2013.

The recent unrest began as a protest over rising prices and other economic difficulties, and quickly grew into a nationwide outpouring of anger against the government, including over corruption.

Video shared on social media showed police in Tehran firing water cannon to try to disperse demonstrators in Ferdowsi Square, Reuters reported, although the footage could not be independently confirmed.

Two protesters were reported killed in recent days in the city of Dorud, and there have been reports of dozens arrested across Iran.

With Iran’s media tightly controlled, information about the protests had been shared through social media and messaging apps. But on Sunday it appeared that authorities were trying to limit that spread. State television said Iran would temporarily restrict access to Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, to “maintain peace.”

Telegram’s chief executive, Pavel Durov, confirmed that the app had been blocked, posting a statement on Twitter that said, “Iranian authorities started blocking Telegram in Iran today after we publicly refused to shut down channels of peaceful Iranian protesters.”

He added: “We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world. We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”

President Donald Trump doubled down on his frequent criticism of the Iranian government Sunday. He posted on Twitter: “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”

He had previously tweeted, “The world is watching!”

In an apparent response to Trump on Sunday, Rouhani said: “This man who today in America wants to sympathize with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called the Iranian nation terrorist,” according to PressTV. “This person who is against the Iranian nation from head to toe has no right to feel sorry for the people of Iran.”

The unauthorized protests have challenged authorities, with crowds turning revolutionary slogans against the government of the Islamic Republic, which took power after a revolution in 1979.

Protesters in Tehran and elsewhere have called for the resignation of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and witnesses described crowds chanting, “Death to the dictator” and “Clerics should get lost.”

Postings on social media showed what the posters said were demonstrators in Dorud, including bonfires in the street and graphic images of people with bloody wounds. At least one of the videos was verified by BBC Persian.