Pro-government supporters take to Iran’s streets in counter-protest

Pro-government counter-protesters across Iran marched Wednesday “in solidarity with the regime,” according to Iranian state media, in an attempt to neutralize what the country’s leaders have identified as “foreign agitators.”

“(Wednesday) is the day that the people are denouncing the recent events and the agitators (protestors),” the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Images on Iranian television channels Wednesday morning local time showed protestors in a variety of locations, waving Iranian flags and holding handwritten signs in support of the government, along with photos of the country’s rulers.

Counter-protests are a common reaction to anti-government dissent in Iran.

“Every time when we have a demonstration or riot there will be a backlash from pro-government institutes,” LA Times Tehran correspondent Ramin Moshtagim told CNN.

“The government has its own followers and supporters so (it’s) no surprise that they take the opportunity to show support for their government.”

The morning rallies are a contrast to the anti-government protests, which start later in the day and gain momentum by nightfall.

So far, at least 21 people in cities and towns across the country have died in the clashes between protesters and government troops that have roiled the country for almost a week. More than 450 people have been arrested by the regime, according to official sources.

Protests took place in at least 10 cities Tuesday night. As the week has worn on, the numbers of both protesters and riot police on the capital’s streets have declined, Moshtagim said.

“Since (Tuesday) night the protests in Tehran seemed diminishing in terms of the number of protesters and in terms of the anti-riot police stationed … in the vicinity” of protests in the capital, he reported.

Solutions sought

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday and expressed his concern over the number of deaths.

He called for restraint and the two leaders agreed to postpone the French Foreign Minister’s visit to Tehran due to the current climate.

Meanwhile, the US Ambassador to the UN praised Iranian protesters Tuesday, adding that the US is seeking emergency meetings with the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding Iran.

“The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” Ambassador Nikki Haley said. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

Her remarks, which were condemned by the Iranian leadership, reflect a broader, concerted effort by the US administration to encourage the large-scale demonstrations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed Iran’s “enemies” for stirring up unrest in the country — suggesting they were involved in a “proxy war,” while slamming US President Donald Trump for tweeting his support for protesters.

Spreading disquiet

The demonstrations, which began Thursday in the northeastern city of Mashhad before spreading to other cities have erupted against a backdrop of rising food and gasoline prices.

Since their beginnings they’ve spiraled into sometimes violent street protests with disaffected youths across the country shouting slogans like “death to Khamenei,” referring to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Despite sanction relief under the Iran nuclear deal, the country’s economy continues to struggle, with a quarter of those under 25 jobless.

Different face of protest

While smaller in size from the 2009 protests, which saw millions take to the streets largely in the capital Tehran, the latest bout of unrest has spread across the nation.

“Not only is it (the latest protest) leaderless, it’s also taken shape in parts of the country which haven’t been politically active, or at the forefront of the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Ellie Geranmayeh, Sr. Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations told CNN.

“So it’s been in small provinces as well as big ones, but small provinces that even Iranians haven’t heard the name of before.”

The recent unrest also marks a departure from 2009 in terms of their demographic constituency. While the demonstrations in 2009 saw the middle class — a largely liberal and moderate group — protesting, this time it is those from the lower end of the economic spectrum.

“You’ve seen it happen with lower middle class and lower class Iranians who typically haven’t had that political engagement, who haven’t had their economic, and by extension political and social aspirations met by successive governments,” says Reza Marashi, Research Director, National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

Deadline looms

Trump has used the anti-government protests as an opportunity to slam the Iran nuclear deal ahead of key legal deadlines looming this month, actions that may foreshadow how he plans to proceed.

In mid-January, Trump will once again have to decide whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal — a process that must occur every 90 days according to the terms of the agreement.

The President also faces what is perhaps an even more significant deadline beginning on January 12, over whether to renew temporary waivers for US sanctions against Iran.

The renewal of those waivers — which provide relief for US sanctions not set to expire for several years — must occur every 120 days to keep the US a party to the deal and thus not violate the accord.

Iran’s missile program is not in breach of its nuclear deal and will continue despite objections from the United States, Rouhani has said.

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