Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has criticized recent arrests of journalists amid an ongoing crackdown on expression by the country's hard-liners.

According to a report Thursday in the state-owned daily IRAN, the president says hard-liners "misuse" remarks by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the possible spread of U.S. influence in Iran as an excuse for the detentions.

The paper quotes Rouhani as saying the hard-liners are "exaggerating the case" and making baseless arrests. The Iranian president spoke during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, the semi-official Fars news agency said authorities detained five Iranian journalists, including two known reformists.

The crackdown and the sharp rhetoric come amid the hard-liners' push against a nuclear deal with world powers and ahead of crucial February parliamentary elections.