LONDON • Protesters in Iran who have staged three days of demonstrations over economic hardship and alleged corruption should pay a high price if they break the law, the government said yesterday.
The wave of anti-government demonstrations in several cities is the biggest challenge to Iran's leaders since the unrest which followed the disputed re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 that went on for months.
Protesters have attacked banks and government buildings and burned a police motorcycle. Two protesters were shot dead in the western town of Dorud on Saturday night. The deputy governor of Lorestan province blamed foreign agents for the deaths.
"No shots were fired by the police and security forces. We have found evidence of enemies of the revolution, Takfiri groups and foreign agents in this clash," Mr Habibollah Khojastehpour said in an interview on state television yesterday.
Takfiri is a term for Sunni militants, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
State media also quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as saying: "Those who damage public property, violate law and order and create unrest are responsible for their actions and should pay the price."
The Iranian authorities have cut Internet access to mobile phones, with the main networks interrupted at least in Teheran shortly before midnight on Sunday, Agence France-Presse reporters said.
Several Iranian news agencies warned that Telegram, the most popular social media service in the country, might soon be shut down after Communications Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi accused one popular channel, Amadnews, of encouraging an "armed uprising".
Mr Ahmad Khatami, a hardline cleric who leads Friday prayers in Teheran, said the protests were similar to those in 2009 over alleged electoral fraud.
He called for capital punishment for those chanting slogans against the values of the Islamic Republic.
The protests have included chants and slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the clerical leadership in power since the 1979 revolution. Videos posted on social media showed people chanting: "Mullahs, have some shame, let go of the country."
"This is more grassroots. It's much more spontaneous, which makes it more unpredictable," Mr Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said of the current protests.
"Things are not working out economically for ordinary Iranians," he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.
"But the root causes, and the much deeper resentment, go back decades. People do not feel this regime represents them."
Protesters defied the police and Revolutionary Guards, who have used violence to crush previous unrest, as they are motivated by economic grievances.
They also have no clear leader.
The protests are also difficult for the government of President Hassan Rouhani as he was elected on a promise to guarantee rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
Mr Rouhani's main achievement, a 2015 deal with world powers that curbed Iran's nuclear programme in return for a lifting of most international sanctions, is yet to bring the economic benefits the government promised.
Unemployment rose to 12.4 per cent in the fiscal year ending in March 2017, up 1.4 percentage points, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran.
United States President Donald Trump, who has called the Iran nuclear deal the "worst deal ever", took to Twitter to show his support for the protesters, saying the government should respect the people's right to express themselves.
"The world is watching!" Mr Trump wrote.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi has said the Iranian people gave no credence to "opportunistic" remarks by Mr Trump or his administration.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST