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Hard-liners and reformers tapped Iranians' ire. Now, both are protest targets.

By Thomas Erdbrink
Jan. 2, 2018 at 10:05 p.m.

Protesters attack a police station Tuesday in Qahdarijan, Irna. Six rioters were killed during the attack, according to Iranian state TV. It reported that clashes were sparked by rioters who tried to steal guns from the police station.

TEHRAN, Iran — Anti-government protests roiled Iran on Tuesday, as the death toll rose to 21 and the nation's supreme leader blamed foreign enemies for the unrest. But the protests that have spread to dozens of Iranian cities in the past six days were set off by miscalculations in a long-simmering power struggle between hard-liners and reformers.

By Tuesday, Iran's leaders could no longer ignore the demonstrations and felt compelled to respond publicly. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, blamed outside "enemies" but did not specify who. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, appealed for calm while saying the protesters had a right to be heard.

But the anger behind the protests was directed against the entire political establishment.

While the protests that swept Iran in 2009 were led by the urban middle class, these protests have been largely driven by disaffected young people in rural areas, towns and small cities who have seized an opening to vent their frustrations with a political elite they say has hijacked the economy to serve its own interests.

Unemployment for young people — half the population — runs at 40 percent, analysts believe. Meanwhile, Iran has spent billions of dollars abroad in recent years to extend its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The initial catalyst for the anger appears to have been the leak by Rouhani last month of a proposed government budget. For the first time, secret parts of the budget, including details of the country's religious institutes, were exposed.

Iranians discovered that billions of dollars were going to hard-line organizations, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and religious foundations that enrich the clerical elite. At the same time, the budget proposed to end cash subsidies for millions of citizens, increase fuel prices and privatize public schools.

The leak appeared to be intended to tap popular resentment, and it worked. Telegram, a social media messaging app used by over 40 million Iranians, blew up with angry comments.

"It made me angry," said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran's poor Khuzestan province, who asked that his family name not to be used out of fear of retaliation. "There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment."

Last Thursday, hard-liners tried to take back the initiative and embarrass the president, staging a demonstration in the holy city of Mashhad, where hundreds chanted slogans against the weak economy and shouted "death to the dictator" and "death to Rouhani."

An Iranian security official confirmed that the Friday prayer leader of the city, Ahmad Alamolhoda, a prominent hard-liner, had been summoned by Iran's National Security Council to explain his role in the demonstration.

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