By Aresu Eqbali in Tehran and Isabel Coles in Baghdad 

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sought to assuage Iranians' concerns on Sunday after an increase in fuel prices ignited deadly unrest as the government comes under pressure at home and in pockets of the region.

Violent protests broke out over the weekend in several cities after the Iranian government said Friday it would cut gasoline subsidies. Those subsidies are a sensitive issue for Iranians, who are feeling squeezed by U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran's economy.

Mr. Khamenei said Iranians' concerns over the fuel-price rise were understandable and advised officials to be careful it didn't lead to a jump in the price of other goods and commodities. "Certainly, some people either get worried or upset, or it is not in their interests" for fuel prices to increase.

Yet Iran's supreme leader defended the move, saying the cut in subsidies had been made by the legislative and administrative branches of government along with the judiciary. He lashed out at the family of the late shah for "encouraging" the unrest as well as the MEK, an exiled opposition movement regarded by Iran and many Iranians as a terrorist organization.

"Unfortunately, yesterday, last night and the night before in some cities of the country, problems were caused, and some lost their lives, and some places were destroyed," Mr. Khamenei was quoted as telling a class studying advanced Islamic law on Sunday.

State television broadcast footage on Sunday showing banks, shops and gas stations damaged during the protests.

A police major was killed in clashes with protesters in the western city of Kermanshah as they attempted to seize a police station, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

ISNA also said 40 people had been arrested in Yazd province and charged with injuring police and vandalism. Prosecutor Mohammad Hadadzadeh was quoted as saying that most of those arrested weren't from the province and that they included foreign nationals.

Iran also faces popular anger beyond its borders.

Protesters in neighboring Iraq have taken to the streets in part to vent against Iran, which they blame for propping up the government, which they want to overturn. A protester was killed in Baghdad on Sunday after being struck by a tear-gas canister fired by security forces, an interior ministry official said, adding to a toll of more than 300 deaths since demonstrations took hold on Oct. 1.

The protests in Iran are a boon for the U.S., which has sought to cripple the country's economy after President Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday expressed support for the protests. "The United States is with you," he said on Twitter.

In a statement Sunday, President Trump also weighed in on the protests. "The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them. We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators," a spokesperson for President Trump said.

Even before the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran, protesters had taken on the government of President Hassan Rouhani, blaming him for failing to control inflation and fix high unemployment. In late 2017, street protests evolved into the most widespread challenge to the government in nearly a decade, with protesters demanding an end to the Islamic Republic regime and the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian officials said 22 people died.

Since then, there have been hundreds of outbreaks of labor unrest, piling pressure on Iranian leaders for failing to deliver better times after economic sanctions were lifted in the nuclear deal.

The scope and scale of the latest protests have been difficult to determine, since the government has restricted access to the internet. Netblocks, which tracks internet shutdowns and disruptions, said Saturday that network data showed connectivity at 7% of ordinary levels after 12 hours of progressive network disconnections in Iran.

In Iraq, where the government has also repeatedly shut down the internet during four weeks of demonstrations, an open letter addressed to the Iranian people was circulated in the name of protesters' on Saturday. The message, written in Persian, sought to clarify that anti-Iranian slogans weren't directed against the people, but their government.

"Our problem is with the Iranian sectarian regime that backs all the corrupt politicians, criminals and murderers in our corrupt government. You should be aware of the fact that we Iraqi People only have a genuine love for you," the message said.

An Interior Ministry official said two rockets landed on Sunday in the vicinity of Tahrir Square -- the epicenter of the protests in Baghdad -- causing no casualties. The identity of the assailant was unknown but previous incidents of rocket fire have been blamed on paramilitary forces with links to Iran who have a vested interest in the survival of the Iraqi government. The paramilitary groups deny responsibility.

Write to Isabel Coles at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2019 16:11 ET (21:11 GMT)

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