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Khamenei blames 'enemies of Iran' as death toll reaches 21

Some 450 people have been arrested in Tehran in the past three days as the biggest protests in the country since 2009 continue

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran on 30 December (AFP)

Nine people were killed as fresh unrest hit Iran overnight, state television said on Tuesday, with protesters trying to storm a police station despite attempts to crack down on the biggest demonstrations in years.

The attack on the police station in the town of Qahderijan, in the central province of Isfahan, led to violence that claimed the lives of six protesters, the state broadcaster reported.

A young member of the Revolutionary Guards and a passer-by were also reported dead in towns near the cultural hub of Isfahan city, while TV reports earlier confirmed the death of a policeman in nearby Najafabad, shot dead with a hunting rifle.

'In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic'

- Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 

That brings the estimated death toll to 21 in five days of unrest that represent the biggest challenge to the Islamic government since mass demonstrations took place in 2009.

In his first comments since protests began last week, Iran's supreme leader on Tuesday accused enemies of the Islamic Republic of stirring unrest.

"In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying in a post on his official website.

"What can stop the enemy from acting is the spirit of courage, sacrifice and faith of the people," he said, speaking to a gathering of war widows and their families.

Khamenei said he would address the nation about the recent events "when the time is right".

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, hailed the protests on Tuesday and called for an emergency session of the security council to discuss Iran.

US President Donald Trump, who has been tweeting daily in support of the protesters, said on Tuesday: "The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime... The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!"

'What the [US] President is doing is taking the focus off the real reasons for the protests, like the foreign adventures and the corruption, and putting it on himself'

- US official 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said that "Instead of wasting his time by publishing offensive tweets to other nations, Trump should focus on internal affairs of America".

A US official who is following developments told Reuters that Trump’s tweets were playing into the government's hands and allowing it to accuse enemies of the Islamic Republic of fomenting the unrest.

"What the President is doing is taking the focus off the real reasons for the protests, like the foreign adventures and the corruption, and putting it on himself," said the US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, some 450 people have been arrested in Tehran over the past three days, an official told local media on Tuesday.

"Two hundred people were arrested on Saturday, 150 on Sunday and around 100 on Monday," Ali-Asghar Naserbakht, a deputy in the Tehran city governor's office, told the reformist-linked ILNA news agency.

Protests remain focused on provincial towns and cities, with only small and sporadic protests in Tehran on Monday evening where a heavy police presence was reported.

"We feel the situation in Tehran is more calm than previous days. Already yesterday, it was calmer than before," said Naserbakht. 

He added that no request had yet been put to the Revolutionary Guards to intervene in the capital. 

"We will not permit insecurity to continue in any way in Tehran. If it continues, officials will take decisions to finish it," said Esmail Kowsari, a deputy commander for a local branch of the Revolutionary Guards, on state television.

The latest violence came despite President Hassan Rouhani's vow that the nation would deal with "rioters and lawbreakers".

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, described the unrest as a "proxy war against the Iranian people".

"Hashtags and messages about the situation in Iran come from the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia," he told local media.

'Seditionist elements'

Turkey on Tuesday said it was "concerned" by the days-long protests that have engulfed neighbouring Iran, warning against any escalation in the unrest. 

"Turkey is concerned by news the protests in Iran... are spreading, causing casualties and also the fact that some public buildings were damaged," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding "common sense should prevail to prevent any escalation".

At the same time, Iran's intelligence ministry released a statement saying "instigators" have been identified "and will be dealt with seriously soon".

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani (AFP)
The Revolutionary Guards have yet to fully intervene against the protesters, but published photos on Monday of three wanted people and called on the public to report any "seditionist elements".

Rouhani has tried to play down the unrest, which began over economic grievances in second city Mashhad last Thursday, but quickly turned against the state as a whole with chants of "Death to the dictator".

"This is nothing," Rouhani said in a statement on the presidency website.

"Our nation will deal with this minority who chant slogans against the law and people's wishes, and insult the sanctities and values of the revolution."

Pro-government rallies were held across several towns and cities, reflecting continued support among a large section of society.

Reporting restrictions remained tight, but videos on social media continued to show widespread anti-government protests in many areas.

'People have had enough'

Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but high living costs and a 12 percent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow.

The young are most affected, with as many as 40 percent out of work according to analysts, and rural areas particularly hard-hit.

"People have had enough, especially the young people. They have nothing to be happy about," said Sarita Mohammadi, a 35-year-old teacher in Tehran.

"The situation is far worse in the provinces. Agriculture has been destroyed. I know many who have left the north of the country to come to Tehran to work," she added.

Rouhani acknowledged there was "no problem bigger than unemployment" in a speech on Sunday, and also vowed a more balanced media and more transparency.

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US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticised Tehran over several days of demonstrations, said it was "time for a change" and that Iran's people were "hungry" for freedom.

The European Union on Monday pushed Iran to guarantee the right to protest and separately British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said "the UK is watching events in Iran closely".

"We believe that there should be meaningful debate about the legitimate and important issues the protesters are raising and we look to the Iranian authorities to permit this," Johnson said in a statement.

In 2009, authorities ruthlessly put down protests against the re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At least 36 people were killed in 2009, according to an official toll, while the opposition says 72 died.

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