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U.S. warns Iran 'the world is watching' as new protests challenge regime

Iranian hard-liners rallied Saturday to support the government, as protests sparked by anger over the country's weak economy roiled major cities in the Islamic Republic.
Image: Iranians chant slogans as they march in support of the government near the Imam Khomeini grand mosque
Iranians chant slogans as they march in support of the government near the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in the capital Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. Tens of thousands of regime supporters marched in cities across Iran in a show of strength for the regime after two days of angry protests directed against the country's religious rulers.Hamed Malekpour / AFP - Getty Images

TEHRAN, Iran — A wave of protests over Iran's weak economy swept into the capital Tehran on Saturday, with college students and others chanting against the government just hours after hard-liners held their own rally in support of the Islamic Republic's clerical establishment.

The demonstrations appear to be the largest to strike Iran since the protests that followed the country's disputed 2009 presidential election.

Early on Saturday, President Donald Trump tweeted out his support for the protests.

His comments drew a strong rebuke from Iran's foreign ministry.

"The people of Iran give no value and credit to Trump," said foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi. "The powerful people of Iran don’t waste their time with opportunist and meddlesome slogans of American officials."

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Thousands have taken to the streets of cities across Iran, beginning at first on Thursday in Mashad, the country's second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.

The protests appeared to be sparked by social media posts and a surge in prices of basic food supplies like eggs and poultry, with demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans including "death to [current president Hassan] Rouhani."

The protests continued for a third day on Saturday and spread to Tehran, where they seemed smaller and more contained with an increasingly large security apparatus present.

Much of the crowds' anger appeared to be focused on a stagnant economy, alleged corruption and Iran's costly involvement in regional conflicts such as those in Syria and Lebanon.

Earlier Saturday, hard-liners rallied across the country to support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others. The rallies, scheduled weeks earlier, commemorated a mass 2009 pro-government rally challenging those who rejected the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid fraud allegations.

Image: Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran
Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 30, 2017.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

In Tehran, some 4,000 people gathered in support of the regime.

However, information about the dueling demonstrations remains scarce as both state-run and semi-official media in Iran have not widely reported on the economic protests.

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State TV aired its first reports on the protests Saturday, acknowledging some protesters chanted the name of Iran's one-time shah, who fled into exile just before its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It's unclear what effect Trump's support for the economic protests would have. Iranians are already largely skeptical of him over his refusal to re-certify the 2015 nuclear deal, while Iran's government has often used comments by U.S. officials to dismiss protests as a sign of foreign interference in its internal politics.

"Counterrevolution groups and foreign media are continuing their organized efforts to misuse the people's economic and livelihood problems and their legitimate demands to provide an opportunity for unlawful gatherings and possibly chaos," state TV said Saturday.

Within Iran’s splintered political system, different factions held each other accountable with hard-liners blaming Rouhani and reformists blaming hard-liners. On both sides of the political divide, politicians and clerics are saying that the people have legitimate concerns, but those same people are also saying that the protest bear the hall marks of seditionists and foreign enemies.

The powerful and influential leader of Friday prayers in Mashad, where the protests started, blamed the government for being out of touch with poor people needs and concerns.

Eshaq Jahangiri, the current vice president and a close confidant of Rouhani, said the economic situation has become an excuse for other issues.

"There are other issues behind the scenes. The ones who have triggered these actions against the government must know that their actions will backfire on them," he said, a clear reference to the various political factions in Iran who he implies are involved in the disruption.

While it's difficult to assess the size and level of organization surrounding the protests, what is clear is that a degree of frustration and resentment exists on the Iranian street.

The strength of feeling appeared to catch the government off guard, but also rattled many reformists.

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Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president who helped implement the country's first meaningful social reforms and spent time in jail during 2009's so-called "green movement," warned that street protests only risked making people’s lives worse.

"When a situation like this occurs the priority of the ruling system becomes the creation of a harsh security atmosphere," he wrote on Instagram.

While police have arrested some protesters, the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates have seemingly not intervened as they have in other unauthorized demonstrations since the 2009 election.

Image: Iranians chant slogans as they march in support of the government near the Imam Khomeini grand mosque
Iranians chant slogans as they march in support of the government near the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in the capital Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017.Hamed Malekpour / AFP - Getty Images

Video posted to social media on Saturday showed two men lying motionless on the ground covered in blood, and the video claimed security forces opened fire on protesters in the western city of Dorud and killed two people, Reuters reported. NBC News has not verified the video.

Other protesters in the same video chanted, "I will kill whoever killed my brother!" according to Reuters.

Iran's economy has improved since Rouhani's government struck the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some of the international sanctions that crippled its economy. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals for tens of billions of dollars of Western aircraft.

That improvement has not reached the average Iranian, however. Unemployment remains high. Official inflation has crept up to 10 percent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the protests.