Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran © AFP

The street protests that have rocked Iran over the past five days have been “curbed” and would soon end, the country’s deputy interior minister for security said on Tuesday.

Hossein Zolfaghari said people were co-operating with the police and “did not go along with saboteurs and those who disrupted public order”, local media reported.

“Police and security forces practised tolerance as long as state and private properties and military bases were not attacked. But they firmly dealt with those who resorted to violence,” he said.

A Tehran official said that by Tuesday, 450 people had been arrested in the capital after three days of protests. “Some protesters were disturbing citizens, forcing them [to] get out of taxis and buses . . . or setting fire to taxis,” said Ali-Asghar Naser-Bakht, Tehran’s deputy governor. “On Monday, protests were more scattered and there were fewer protesters.”

The head of Tehran Revolutionary Court — which deals with major security threats — said the punishment for demonstrators would be heavier from now on. “Some of those arrested could face charges of Moharebeh [fighting with God] or acting against national security because they are linked to foreign intelligence services,” said Mousa Ghazanfar-Abadi. “Some betrayers who we were long looking for were finally arrested during these skirmishes.”

On Monday, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, called for unity as the death toll from the protests, the biggest in almost a decade, was feared to have exceeded 20.

After protesters defied a heavy police presence and took to the streets on Sunday night, Mr Rouhani urged Iran’s political and military forces to speak with “one voice” to ensure the “[survival of] the political system, national interest and stability of our country and the region”.

Speaking on state television with members of parliament on Monday, following the worst unrest in Iran since the 2009 pro-democracy demonstrations, Mr Rouhani condemned violent protests. However, he recognised people’s right to attend peaceful rallies and added: “Our great nation has seen such incidents a lot before and will easily pass by them.”

The authorities said there would be “no more tolerance” towards any act of “sabotage” by protesters and vowed severe punishment.

The demonstrations started in the north-eastern city of Mashhad last Thursday when crowds poured on to the streets to protest at rising prices and frustration with Iran’s theocratic regime.

The protests eased back from the intensity of the weekend across the country even though in some small towns they turned violent. The atmosphere on the streets of Tehran and other cities remained tense.

People in more than a dozen towns and cities have called for the removal of political leaders, whom they accuse of corruption. Demonstrators chanted “death to the dictator” and “death to Rouhani”, and set fire to public and private property, including banks and cars. Some towns held pro-regime rallies.

Iranian television reports said six people had been killed in Tuyserkan in the western province of Hamedan in “suspicious shootings”, while three others were killed in Shahinshahr in the central province of Isfahan.

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Two people died in clashes in Izeh in the southern province of Khuzestan, said Hedayatollah Khademi, the town’s member of parliament. Local media said four people were killed in Dorud in the west, including a 12-year-old boy.

On Monday evening, security forces imposed traffic restrictions in central Tehran and prevented any gatherings. But protests continued in other parts of the country, in particular in small towns.

In Najafabad, in Isfahan province, one policeman was killed, according to state media, and other reports suggested two members of the Revolutionary Guards had also been killed. Rajanews, a news agency close to Iran’s hardliners, said five people had been killed in Qahderijan, also in Isfahan province, after a serious clash between security forces and protesters trying to seize the governor’s office.

Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, said on Monday that the protests were a proxy war through social media guided by the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia against Iran.

The central government has not yet confirmed the death toll.

On Sunday, the government temporarily blocked access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram in an effort to curb dissent.

The outbreak of unrest comes as Iran’s shattered economy — struggling with youth unemployment of 25 per cent and inflation of 10 per cent — has been showing signs of improvement following reforms and the lifting of many international sanctions under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

While acknowledging that economic hardships had made people unhappy, Mr Rouhani said conspiracies by Iran’s “enemies” had provoked the protests in retaliation for its success in striking the nuclear accord and its growing influence in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, US president, has been addressing Iranians daily since Friday. In his latest post on Twitter, he said: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

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