ISTANBUL — Anti-government protests spurred by economic woes hit Iran for a third day Saturday, news agencies and social media reported, in what has quickly emerged as a significant challenge to the administration of President Hassan Rouhani.
Demonstrators protesting price hikes and high unemployment turned out in cities and towns across the country, defying police and voicing anger at the cleric-ruled government, in an extraordinary display of public dissent.
Officials warned Saturday that citizens should stay away from “illegal gatherings,” even as protests spread to new regions.
Footage emerged late Saturday of demonstrators appearing to attack government buildings and engaging in violent confrontations with police. The BBC Persian service reported that two demonstrators had been shot in the western part of the country, citing video on social media. One video from Tehran showed protesters tearing down posters of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds absolute authority in Iran. The images were posted online and could not immediately be verified.
“This is more grass roots. It's much more spontaneous, which makes it more unpredictable,” 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 said. “But the root causes, and the much deeper resentment, go back decades. People do not feel this regime represents them.”
President Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday afternoon that “the entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change.”
“Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most,” he said.
Earlier in the day, after a prior Trump tweet, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman lashed out at the American president, saying Iran “does not pay attention to the opportunistic claims by U.S. officials,” according to state media.
Rouhani, a moderate, was elected to a second four-year term in May, pledging that he would continue to open Iran up to the world. But he has so far failed to deliver on promises of a revived economy in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal, which was his signature achievement.
That agreement with the United States and five other world powers curbed Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. But rampant corruption, problems in the banking sector, and unilateral U.S. sanctions have hindered the country’s economic progress.
Rouhani released a proposed budget this month that called for slashing cash subsidies to the poor and increasing in fuel prices — part of an effort to reduce debt and move the economy away from oil exports. The plan also included new and added fees for things like car registration and an unpopular departure tax which sparked fierce public debate.
Anger over the budget, and a recent 40 percent jump in the price of eggs, helped stir the protests, analysts said.
“Since Rouhani entered office, he has managed to inflate expectations with lofty rhetoric but has actually done little to change the reality of life on the ground in Iran,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
According to an unidentified protester from the western city of Kermanshah, who spoke Friday to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, “people poured into the streets . . . because they are tired of the rising cost of living.”
The center maintains a wide network of contacts inside Iran.
“When we don’t have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything,” the protester was quoted as saying.
A video purportedly from Tehran that appeared Saturday evening showed demonstrators calling on police to join them.
Iran’s state media largely ignored the demonstrations, painting them as the work of anti-Iranian groups.
“Counterrevolution groups and foreign media are continuing their organized efforts to misuse the people’s economic and livelihood problems and their legitimate demands to provide an opportunity for unlawful gatherings and possibly chaos,” the Associated Press quoted state television as saying late Saturday.
Government media focused their coverage on thousands of Iranians who attended pro-government rallies Saturday marking the anniversary of the end of the unrest in 2009.
Back then, supporters of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi challenged the reelection of a hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sparking mass protests. They were crushed by Iranian security forces, and activists and dissidents were beaten and jailed.
On Saturday, Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, took to Twitter to urge the head of the messaging app Telegram to shut down the Iranian Amad News channel, which the minister accused of aiding the protests.
“A Telegram channel is encouraging hateful conduct, use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprising, and social unrest,” Jahromi said. Telegram is widely popular among Iranians and even government officials.
Telegram’s director, Pavel Durov, responded that he had ordered the channel shut, citing Telegram’s “no calls for violence” rule.
“Be careful — there are lines one shouldn’t cross,” he posted on Twitter.
Taleblu, the analyst, said that the demonstrations “prove that there is widespread discontent in Iran, that it can be triggered at any time.”
“These protests also show that . . . Iranians see the regime and its mismanagement as an impediment to their daily lives,” he said.
Others, however, warned about the effectiveness of demonstrations that lack a cohesive strategy or broader political vision.
“Socio-economic discontent [should not] be equated with effective political resistance,” Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Iran coverage at Al-Monitor, an online news portal, wrote of the protests.
“Without necessary resources . . . change remains a remote prospect,” he wrote.