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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Iran protests were not just about economy, Rouhani says in dig at hardliners

No one is above criticism, president says after week of unrest that saw calls for supreme leader to step down

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks at a cabinet meeting held on December 31, 2017 as protests against the country's rulers raged across Iran. Iranian Presidency Office via AP
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks at a cabinet meeting held on December 31, 2017 as protests against the country's rulers raged across Iran. Iranian Presidency Office via AP

Protests that shook Iran were not just aimed at the economy, President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday, remarks suggesting the real targets were powerful conservatives opposed to his plans to expand individual freedoms at home and promote detente abroad.

The pragmatic cleric, who defeated anti-West hardliners to win re-election last year, also called for restoring access to social media used by anti-government protesters in the most sustained challenge to hardline authorities since 2009.

"It would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands," Mr Rouhani was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

"People had economic, political and social demands."

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said on Sunday that security forces had put an end to a week of unrest fomented by what it called foreign enemies.

The protests, which began over economic hardships suffered by the young and working class, spread to more than 80 cities and towns and resulted in 22 deaths and more than 1,000 arrests, including of schoolchildren, according to Iranian officials.

Hamid Shahriari, the deputy head of the judiciary, said that all ringleaders of the protests had been identified and arrested, and they would be firmly punished and might face capital punishment.

An Iranian member of parliament said on Monday that one detainee had died in prison.

"This 22-year-old young man was arrested by the police. I was informed that he has committed suicide in jail," Tayebeh Siavashi was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency.

Many of the protesters questioned Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, where it has intervened in Syria and Iraq in a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia.

The country’s financial support for Palestinians and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah also angered Iranians, who want their government to focus on domestic economic problems instead.

Mr Rouhani won re-election last year by promising more jobs for Iran’s youth through more foreign investment, as well as more social justice, individual freedom and political tolerance - aims questioned by his main challenger in the contest.

Echoing some of his campaign rhetoric, the president said on Monday that people should be allowed to criticise all Iranian officials, with no exception.

Demonstrators initially vented their anger over high prices and alleged corruption, but the protests took on a rare political dimension, with a growing number of people calling on Mr Rouhani and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down.

Iran's supreme leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints the heads of the judiciary. Key ministers are selected with his agreement and he has the ultimate say on foreign policy. By comparison, the president has little power.

"No one is innocent and people are allowed to criticise everyone," said Mr Rouhani.

He also dismissed calls from hardline clerics who had asked the government to permanently block access social media and messaging apps.

As protests have ebbed, the government has lifted restrictions it imposed on Instagram, one of the social media tools used to mobilise protesters. But the more widely used Telegram messaging app remained blocked. The government has said the restrictions would be temporary.

"People's access to social media should not permanently be restricted. We cannot be indifferent to people's life and business," Mr Rouhani said.

State television broadcast live more pro-government rallies in several cities on Monday, including in Sanandaj in western Iran, as marchers carried posters of Mr Khamenei and chanted slogans in his support.

Iranian vice president Masoumeh Ebtekar tweeted on Monday that Mr Rouhani has insisted that all detained students should be released.

Mohammad Bathaei, the education minister said on Monday that there were many schoolchildren among the detainees and he was asking for their release before exam season.

Amnesty International said last week that more than 1,000 Iranians had been arrested and detained in jails "notorious for torture and other ill-treatment over the past seven days", with many being denied access to families and lawyers.

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