TEHRAN, Iran — Two protesters taking part in demonstrations roiling Iran were killed at a rally overnight, authorities said Sunday, as the government blamed “foreign agents” for the deaths and partially blocked access to a popular messaging app used by activists.
The demonstrations, which began Thursday over the economic woes plaguing Iran, appear to be the largest to strike the Islamic Republic since the protests that followed the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election.
They were fanned in part by messages sent on the Telegram messaging app, which authorities partially blocked Sunday along with Instagram.
“Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behavior and pay the price,” Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told state television Sunday.
2 killed during protests in Iran, news agency says
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The price for public disorder in Iran can be very high. Protesters convicted during the 2009 election were handed down harsh sentences and heavy fines. Authorities said several people who were chanting anti-government slogans and damaging public property were arrested in Tehran last night.
President Donald Trump, whose travel bans blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas, again tweeted out his support for the protests Sunday morning after being rebuked by Iran’s foreign ministry for similar comments on Saturday.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2017
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.
“The people of Iran give no value and credit to Trump,” said foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi on Saturday. “The powerful people of Iran don’t waste their time with opportunist and meddlesome slogans of American officials.”
Related: Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has isolated U.S. from world leaders
Thousands have taken to the streets of cities across Iran, beginning on Thursday in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.
What started out as a provincial demonstration over the economy appears to have quickly morphed into something much more political, with slogans shifting from complaints about the price of everyday goods to calls for the entire ruling establishment to be brought down.
The demonstrations spread to the capital Tehran on Saturday night, with hundreds of protesters gathering in various squares chanting slogans against the clerical elite and tearing down posters. Meanwhile social media footage appeared to show students inside Tehran university chanting anti-government slogans and clashing with police as they tried to exit the campus.
Earlier Saturday, hard-liners rallied across the country to support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others in pre-planned demonstrations of support for the regime.
In the city of Doroud in the west of the country two protesters were killed at an unauthorized rally, said Habibollah Khojastepour, the security deputy of Iran’s western Lorestan province. Municipal buildings and banks were also looted and a police motorcycle was set alight.
Videos circulating on social media purported to show the protesters shot dead by government security forces. But Khojastepour denied that the shots were fired by police, instead blaming terrorists and foreign agents.
“We have found evidence of enemies of the revolution…and foreign agents in this clash,” he said on state television Sunday.
NBC News could not verify the videos or details of the shooting.
Many in Iran are learning about the protests and sharing images of them through Telegram, an app popular among the country’s 80 million people. On Saturday, Telegram shut down one channel on the service over Iranian allegations it encouraged violence.
Internet connectivity has also been cut or slowed down dramatically, in an apparent attempt to stop activists organizing gatherings or posting videos of demonstrations.
Warnings that civil disobedience won’t be tolerated and the fact that social media is being blocked suggests authorities may be preparing to crackdown if people return to the streets on Sunday evening.
There have nonetheless been calls for more protests and if people do come out and the clampdown is indeed severe, it remains to be seen if that will encourage protesters to dig in deeper or scare them off.
The next few days may therefore be critical in determining where this movement is headed, as many in Iran continue to try to understand it.
President Hassan Rouhani seems set to address the protests publicly for the first time on Sunday night, with semi-official news agency ISNA saying state TV will air a pre-recorded interview with the president. It’s unclear exactly when the interview will air.
Within Iran’s splintered political system, different factions held each other accountable for the unrest, with hard-liners blaming Rouhani and reformists blaming religious 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.
Demonstrators gather to protest against Iran's weak economy in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 30, 2017. AP
Although the protests are widespread, engulfing many cities across the country, they seem to be smaller in size than those in 2009.
Unlike the 2009 protests, the crowds are not chanting the names of the leaders of the so-called green movement or wearing green bracelets in a display of support for reforms, something that had become commonplace at demonstrations in Iran in the years since. In fact the activists, who appear more emboldened, radical and provocative than in the past, don’t appear to be chanting for any leader.
It’s expected that the longer the protests go on, the harder security forces will crack down. In many of the videos circulating on social media, the police appear, so far, to have mostly exercised restraint.
There has also been little evidence of the presence of the revolutionary guard, but that could change in the coming days.
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.