In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017. A wave of spontaneous protests over Iran's weak economy swept into 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. (AP Photo)
A student protests at Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by police © AP

Iran has temporarily blocked access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram, in an effort to curb dissent after the biggest anti-regime protests in a decade saw thousands of people take to the streets across the country and left two people dead.

In Tehran there was a heavy security and police presence on Sunday with armoured vehicles at trouble spots such as Ferdowsi Square and Valiasr Crossroad, eyewitnesses said. Protesters were present, but not chanting slogans as they had been on previous evenings. It was difficult to estimate the number of protesters as security forces in plainclothes were present in high numbers, creating a tense atmosphere in central Tehran.

Authorities confirmed that two men had been killed in the western town of Doroud in Lorestan province during clashes on Saturday, but said that police had not opened fire on protesters.

“Unfortunately, two of our dear citizens were killed in clashes,” said Habibollah Khojastehpour, deputy governor of Lorestan province. He alleged that foreign intelligence services and Sunni radical forces were behind the clashes.

Iran’s most senior leaders have not publicly reacted to the crisis. However, Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli, interior minister, promised to deal with “those who are spreading violence and horror on social media”. 

Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran prosecutor-general, warned that those who sabotaged public property were criminals and would face heavy sentences.

“The detainees have said that they set fire on mosques and other public places just because they got too emotional and were affected by the atmosphere,” he said on Sunday. “Judges should co-operate with the police to sue the main figures [behind the protests].” He did not say how many arrests had been made. 

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while anti-riot Iranian police prevent them to join other protestors, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017. A wave of spontaneous protests over Iran's weak economy swept into 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. (AP Photo)
Students protest at Tehran University on Saturday. On Sunday, dozens believed to be affiliated to hardliners protested against the Rouhani regime © AP

In Tehran on Saturday, riot police used batons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators, while at Valiasr Crossroad hundreds of protesters chanted “death to the dictator”, destroyed fences and set fire to rubbish bins, eyewitnesses said.

Videos on social media showed demonstrators in western Tehran tearing up a banner of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker. In other cities, protesters chanted “death to Khamenei” and called for the removal of clerics from power.

In the northern city of Rasht, protesters chanted “independence, freedom, Iranian Republic” — a rallying cry against the Islamic republic.

The biggest street protests since 2009 were sparked by a demonstration against rising prices that took place on Thursday in the north-eastern city of Mashhad — the main base of Iran’s hardliners. 

Reformist politicians and analysts said the protests were initially organised by hardliners to undermine the centrist government of Hassan Rouhani. 

The rally in Mashhad encouraged Iranians across the country to pour on to the streets on Friday and challenge the political establishment. “These are no longer protests for a better economy,” said Ali, a 52-year-old driver in Tehran. “Demonstrators chant all sorts of slogans as if they don’t know what they want.”

Iran’s official and semi-official media have limited coverage of the protests. Posts on social media suggest hundreds of protesters in towns and cities across Iran. While protests in some places have been peaceful, in others demonstrators have set fire to state-owned buildings and property. 

epa06410141 Iranians hold portraits of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chant slogans as they take part in a rally to support the government and regime, outside of the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran, Iran, 30 December 2017. Hundreds of regime supporters marched in Tehran and cities across Iran to show their supports for the regime following two days of angry and illegal protests against the government. EPA/HAMED MALEKPOUR
A rally in support of the government outside the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran © EPA

On Sunday, dozens of students believed to be affiliated to hardliners, went to Tehran university to protest against Mr Rouhani’s government. They chanted: “We don’t want a lame government” and “our government, our disgrace”, according to local media.

Hardline media have suggested that foreign powers are behind the unrest and warned of a conspiracy against the Islamic Republic. Fars news agency, which is close to the elite Revolutionary Guards, has suggested that Iran’s enemies might stage deaths in order to further inflame the situation.

US President Donald Trump backed the protesters in several posts on Twitter. On Sunday he said: “Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”

UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, also backed Iran’s rallies on Sunday. In a post on Twitter, he said: “Watching events in Iran with concern. Vital that citizens should have the right to demonstrate peacefully.”

While protesters have no leader, a Turkey-based news channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, became the main source of information for co-ordinating anti-regime activity until it was blocked.

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