TEHRAN, Iran - Following days of violent protests in Iran, the country’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has finally spoken out and has accused the country's enemies of stirring the protests.
So far, the protests that stated last week, have claimed at least 22 lives.
Speaking for the first time since people protesting at Iran's economic troubles clashed with security forces on Thursday, Khamenei said in a post on his official website, "In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic."
He added that he would address the nation about the recent events "when the time was right.”
The State Media said that overnight, nine people, including a child, had died in violence in central Iran.
The protests that were triggered on Thursday and have continued until Tuesday, are the largest since the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The protests began in the city of Mashhad, initially against price rises and corruption, but have since spread amid wider anti-government sentiment.
The Trump administration and the U.S. President have both come out in support of Iranian protesters and analysts have now pointed out that the supreme leader's reference to "enemies" is a swipe at Israel, the U.S. and regional rival Saudi Arabia.
The Tasnim news quoted the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, as warning Saudi Arabia that there would be a response from Iran "and they know how serious it can be.”
Meanwhile, Musa Ghazanfarabadi, the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court warned that the ringleaders of the protests would face harsh punishment.
However, in contrast, President Hassan Rouhani has called the protests an "opportunity, not a threat.”
Recognizing the economic discontent, Rouhani said that people had a right to take the streets. However, he has also vowed to crack down on "lawbreakers.”
In an official statement, reformist and moderate MPs have urged the authorities to be open to criticism and to be tolerant of the right to protest, which they said was enshrined in the constitution.
However, they have also accused the U.S. of trying to take advantage of the situation.
As part of the nuclear deal, under which the country agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions, Iran’s economy has improved.
Tehran currently sells oil on the global market and has signed deals worth tens of billions of dollars for western aircraft.
However, the improvement has not filtered down to the average Iranian.
Unemployment remains high in the country and official inflation has crept back up to 10 percent.
The anti-government protests also appeared to have been sparked by a recent increase of up to 40 percent in the price of eggs and poultry.
A government spokesman blamed this on a cull due to avian flu fears.
Over the last few years, frustrations have continued to grow since Iran is deeply involved in Syria and Iraq as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia.
The foreign interventions are also fueling anger in the Islamic Republic because Iranians want their leaders to create jobs instead of engaging in costly proxy wars.
On Thursday, the anti-government protests began in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city where thousands of people marched, holding banners and shouting slogans against the poor state of the economy.
Soon, the demonstrations took on a political edge as participants criticized the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and his government.
Unverified videos posted on social media also showed clashes between protesters and police.
The country’s Fars news agency said protests had spread on Friday to Qom, the world’s leading centre for Shia scholarship and home to a major shrine.
Reports noted that the police had arrested some protesters, but the country’s Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates have maintained that they did not intervene as they have in other unauthorized demonstrations since the 2009 election.
Over the weekend, two deaths were reported and several others were injured in the street demonstration in the southwestern town of Izeh, but no confirmation or details were received on the same.
Further, the anti-government protests over corruption and living standards also saw scores of people being arrested.
As more groups continued to stage protests, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli urged people "not to participate in these illegal gatherings as they will create problems for themselves and other citizens.”
The Iranian authorities blamed anti-revolutionaries and agents of foreign powers for the outbreak of anti-establishment protest.
According to state TV reports on Tuesday morning, six protesters died overnight in an apparent attempt to seize guns from a police station in the town of Qahderijan in the central province of Isfahan.
According to the report, an 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were reported killed in the town of Khomeinishahr.
The state media also reported that a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards was fatally wounded in nearby Kahrizsang.
In Najafabad, near Isfahan, there were reports of shots being fired at police, which killed one officer and wounded three.
The deputy governor-general of the province said that so far, since the protests started, some 450 people have been arrested in Tehran.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a string of tweets in support of the protesters and against Iran's leaders.
In response, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi responded by saying Trump should focus on "the domestic issues of his own country, such as daily killings of dozens of people... and the existence of millions of homeless and hungry people.”
Meanwhile, the EU has called on Iran to guarantee its citizens' right to peaceful protest.
It said it had been in touch with the Iranian authorities and was monitoring the situation.
Turkey meanwhile expressed concern at the unrest spreading and warned against any escalation.
Further, France too issued a statement and said it was concerned at the number of victims and arrests.