Iran warns protesters will 'pay the price' as unrest turns deadly





Tehran (AFP) - Iran warned on Sunday that protesters will "pay the price" after a third night of unrest saw mass demonstrations across the country, two people killed and dozens arrested.

Videos on social media showed thousands marching across the country overnight in the biggest test for the Islamic republic since mass protests in 2009.

They showed demonstrations in Mashhad, Isfahan and many smaller cities but travel restrictions and limited coverage by official media made it difficult to confirm reports.

State media began to show footage of the protests on Sunday, focusing on attacks by young men against banks and vehicles, an attack on a town hall in Tehran, and images of a man burning the Iranian flag.

"Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price," Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said on state television.

"The spreading of violence, fear and terror will definitely be confronted," he added.

Lorestan province deputy governor Habibollah Khojastehpour told state television that two people were killed in the small western town of Dorud late on Saturday but denied security forces were responsible.

US President Donald Trump weighed in, saying "oppressive regimes cannot endure forever".

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders warned: "The days of America looking the other way ... are over."

Iranian authorities have sought to distinguish anti-regime protesters from what they see as legitimate economic grievances.

"Do not get excited," parliament director for international affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian wrote in a tweet directed at Trump.

"Sedition, unrest and chaos are different from gatherings and peaceful protests to pursue people's livelihoods," he said.

The protests began in second city Mashhad on Thursday over high living costs, but quickly spread throughout the country and against the Islamic system as a whole, with slogans such as "Death to the dictator".

But there have been reminders of the continued support for the regime among conservative sections of society, with pro-regime students holding another day of demonstrations at the University of Tehran on Sunday.

They had outnumbered protesters at the university the day before, although online videos showed significant protests around downtown parts of the capital later in the evening.

- Dozens arrested -

The total number of arrests was unclear but an official in Arak, around 300 kilometres (190 miles) southwest of Tehran, said 80 people had been detained overnight.

Police have so far taken a relatively soft approach to the unrest and there has been no sign that the Revolutionary Guards have yet been deployed.

Iranian authorities have blamed external forces for fomenting the protests, saying the majority of social media reports were emanating from regional rival Saudi Arabia or exile groups based in Europe.

Internet was temporarily cut on mobile phones on Saturday night but was restored not long after.

President Hassan Rouhani has so far not made any statement since the protests started.

He came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but anger over high living costs and a 12-percent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow.

Unemployment is particularly high among young people, who have grown up in a less restrictive environment and are generally considered less deferential to authority.

"Rouhani has run an austerity budget since 2013 with the idea that it's a tough but necessary pill to swallow to manage inflation and currency problems and try to improve Iran's attractiveness for investment," said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

"But choosing years of austerity immediately after a very tough period of sanctions is bound to test people's patience," he told AFP.

Since the ruthless repression of the 2009 protests against a disputed presidential election that gave hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, many middle-class Iranians have abandoned hope of securing change from the streets.

But low-level strikes and demonstrations have continued, with bus drivers, teachers and factory workers protesting against unpaid wages and poor conditions.

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