Iran's Rouhani says protests were about 'political, social demands' in jab at hardliners

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that recent widespread protests in the country were sparked by citizens’ social and political demands – not just economic concerns.

Rouhani’s remarks suggested that the real targets in the protests were powerful conservatives opposed to his plans to expand individual freedoms at home and promote detente abroad.

The pragmatic cleric, who defeated anti-Western hardliners to win re-election last year, also called for the lifting of curbs on social media used by anti-government protesters in the most sustained challenge to hardline authorities since 2009.

“It would be a misrepresentation (of events) and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency. “People had economic, political and social demands.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Sunday the security forces had put an end to a week of unrest.

Iranian worshippers chant slogans during the Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 5, 2018. A hard-line Iranian cleric has called on Iran to create its own indigenous social media apps, blaming them for the unrest that followed days of protest in the Islamic Republic over its economy. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iranians are seen chanting slogans during prayers in Tehran. The country was hit by several days of widespread protests.  (AP)

The protests, which began over economic hardships suffered by the young and working class, spread to more than 80 cities and towns and has resulted in 22 deaths and more than 1,000 arrests, according to Iranian officials.

IRAN'S ETHNIC MINORITIES ARE PLAYING A VITAL ROLE IN PROTESTS

Officials have said that all ringleaders of the protests had been identified and arrested, and they would be firmly punished.

An Iranian lawmaker confirmed on Monday the death of one detainee in prison, according to ILNA news agency.

Many of the protesters questioned Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, where it has intervened in Syria and Iraq in a battle for influence with Saudi Arabia.

The country’s financial support for Palestinians and the Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah also angered Iranians, who want their government to focus on domestic economic problems instead.

Rouhani won re-election last year by promising more jobs for Iran’s youth through more foreign investment, as well as more social justice, individual freedom and political tolerance—aims questioned by his main challenger in the contest.

A video projection is seen on the head of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani as he arrives for a news conference during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - RC12E4A2CC10

A video projection is seen on the head of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Sept. 20, 2017  (Reuters)

Echoing some of his campaign rhetoric, Rouhani said on Monday people should be allowed to criticize all Iranian officials, with no exception. 

“No one is innocent and people are allowed to criticize everyone,” said Rouhani.

Demonstrators initially vented their anger over high prices and alleged corruption, but the protests took on a rare political dimension, with a growing number of people calling on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down.

In Iran, the Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and appoints the heads of the judiciary. Key ministers are selected with his agreement and he has the ultimate say on Iran’s foreign policy. However, the president has little actual power.

Reuters reports that Rouhani also dismissed calls from hardline clerics who had asked the government to permanently block access social media and messaging apps. “People’s access to social media should not permanently be restricted. We cannot be indifferent to people’s life and business,” he said.

State television showed live pictures of more pro-government rallies in several cities, including Sanandaj in western Iran, as marchers carried posters of Ayatollah Khamenei and chanted slogans in his support.