ANKARA - Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.Tehran's Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal "firmly" with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials."But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt based on Islamic clemency," cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.Khatami also called on the government to "pay more attention to people's economic problems."The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran's holy Shi'ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.The authorities have produced no evidence to support assertions of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader. GUARDS QUELLED UNRESTResidents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.Iran's elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country's 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump's support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.
On Friday rallies, protesters chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," carrying pictures of Iran's top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting "We support Imam Khamenei ... We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies.""Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities," state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei. Khatami also called on the government to "pay more attention to people's economic problems."UNITED FRONTTo allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices."There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months ... These problems should be resolved," Khatami said, according to state TV.Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran's faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country's nuclear program.Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.