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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Iran's Khamenei blames enemies for unrest as death toll rises to 21

The supreme leader of Iran said on Tuesday that recent protests across the country are a result of foreign interference as the death toll from anti-regime demonstrations increased to 21.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that previous efforts by other nations to meddle in Iranian affairs could have left the country "worse" than Syria or Libya.

"In recent events, the enemies of Iran united by using different tools in their disposition, including money, weapons, politics and intelligence, in order to create problems for the Islamic system,” he said in his first public statement on his official website.

Ayatollah Khamenei added that he will address the people of his country about the recent unrest that broke out on December 28 “when the time was right”.

His tone differed from the more conciliatory comments made by president Hassan Rouhani in a televised statement on Sunday, in which he said the people had the right to criticise, but not to violence.

On Monday, nine Iranians — including two members of the security forces — were killed in Isfahan province during demonstrations, while six people were killed in an attack on a police station in the town of Qahderijan.

In the capital Tehran, the deputy provincial governor, Ali Asghar Naserbakht, said that more than 450 protesters were arrested in the past three days. He said that 200 were arrested on Saturday, 150 people on Sunday and about 100 people on Monday. Media reports and social media have said that hundreds of others were arrested in other cities.

Ninety per cent of those taken into custody were under the age of 25, said deputy interior minister Hossein Zolfaghari.

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Musa Ghazanfarabadi, head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, warned protesters on Tuesday that those arrested would face harsh punishment.

He said detainees will face trials and those found to be ringleaders would face serious charges, including the death penalty.

Mr Naserbakht said that the situation in the capital was under control and the security forces have not resorted to the help of the Revolutionary Guards special forces.

Initial protests last week focused on economic hardships and corruption, but quickly turned into demonstrations against the government.

Young people are frustrated from the economic situation, lack of social freedoms and Iran’s focus on other countries and regional issues rather than its own affairs. They want their leaders to create jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 29 per cent last year, according to Reuters.

Protesters would repeatedly chant “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran”.

On Monday, Mr Rouhani refrained from accepting responsibility of issues raised by demonstrators, blaming his predecessor and the US for the government’s shortcomings.

"People on the streets do not ask for bread and water, but for more freedom," he said, implying that the protesters were not targeting his rule but the more rigid establishment.

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Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump tweeted a message of support for the anti-government protesters on Tuesday, saying: “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 US is watching!"

Bahram Qasem, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, was quick to respond and said that the US president should stop “wasting his time by publishing offensive tweets to other nations, Trump should focus on internal affairs of America”.

France said it was concerned by the number of victims and arrests in Iran amid reports that the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian would visit Tehran this week.

The foreign ministry spokesman did not confirm whether the visit will take place, but said in a statement on Tuesday: "The right to protest is a fundamental right.”

Turkey also commented on Tuesday on the recent unrest, saying it was concerned by reports of people dying and public buildings being damaged in Iran.

"We believe it is necessary to avoid violence and not succumb to provocations," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it hoped foreign intervention would be avoided.

The Russian foreign ministry, meanwhile, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying external interference was destabilising the situation and calling it "unacceptable".

Iran and Russia are the main allies of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, while the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey support forces against the Assad regime.