TEHRAN, Iran — Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in pro-government demonstrations in several cities across the country on Wednesday, state media reported, after a week of protests against the government and unrest that has killed at least 21 people.
While the rallies showed support among Iran’s 80 million people for its clerically overseen government, the unrest which has swept through several cities appeared to be reaching smaller towns in the countryside, according to protesters’ online videos.
Official and semi-official media did not immediately offer new details of the unrest Wednesday. Demonstrators’ videos corresponded with The Associated Press’ reporting from outside of Iran, though individual protesters themselves remain unreachable. The protests appear to remain leaderless.
The protests, the largest seen in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election, began on Dec. 28 in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city and a bastion for hard-liners. While initially focusing on Iran’s flagging economy and rising food prices, they’ve morphed into demands for wholesale change in Iran’s theocratic government.
On Wednesday, state TV reported that pro-government demonstrations took place in dozens of cities and towns, including Ahvaz, the capital of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan; the Kurdish town of Kermanshah in the country’s west; and Qom, the religious capital of Shiite Islam in Iran.
Demonstrators carried pre-printed signs and Iranian flags, with state TV offering a swooping helicopter shot in Ahvaz to show their scale. Ahvaz and the wider Khuzestan province is home to many ethnic Arabs and has seen unrest amid the protests.
In Qom, state TV cameras focused on the Shiite clerics taking part, many wearing the black turbans identifying them as direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
The English-language Press TV broadcast Wednesday’s pro-government rallies live, saying they sought to “protest the violence that has taken place over the last few nights in cities.” State TV said the demonstrations served as an “answer to the protests,” which it blamed on “servants of the U.S.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed days of protests across the country on meddling by “enemies of Iran.”
“Look at the recent days’ incidents,” Khamenei said. “All those who are at odds with the Islamic Republic have utilized various means, including money, weapons, politics and (the) intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution.”
Khamenei avoided identifying any foreign countries, although he promised to elaborate in the coming days. Undoubtedly high on his list is the United States, where President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the protests for several days. Some pro-government demonstrators carried signs showing Trump’s face covered with a bright red “X.”
On Wednesday, Trump again tweeted about the protests.
“Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government,” he wrote. “You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”
Iran’s government has since shut down access to Telegram and the photo-sharing app Instagram in an attempt to contain the unrest. Facebook and Twitter were already banned.
The Trump administration has called on Iran’s government to stop blocking Instagram and other popular social media sites. U.S. Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said Instagram, Telegram and other platforms are “legitimate avenues for communication.”
The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court has warned that arrested protesters could potentially face the death penalty.
“Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying. Moharebeh is punishable by death in Iran.
Later Wednesday, Turkish officials said Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he hopes the protests “will end in a couple of days.” Officials in Erdogan’s office said the two had a telephone conversation on Wednesday during which Erdogan stressed the importance of stability and calm.
A statement from Rouhani’s office quoted the president as saying: “Iranian police’s wise, calming presence in recent limited unrest indicates that we fully trust the security and stability in our country.”
The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights meanwhile called on Iran to investigate all deaths in the protests and act “with great care so as not to further inflame violence and unrest.”
“The Iranian authorities must respect the rights of all demonstrators and detainees, including their right to life, and guarantee their safety and security,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.
An activist video meanwhile showed unrest in Noor Abad, in Lorestan province, some 225 miles southwest of Tehran.
Demonstrators in the video are seen coming to the aid of another protester, who appears seriously wounded. They later set fire to an ambulance in anger over what they describe as the local hospital’s refusal to treat their wounded.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.