Iranian police warned anti-government protesters against staging new rallies after arresting dozens of demonstrators in Tehran and the western city Kermanshah, even as the United States called for a "peaceful transition" of government in Iran.
Speaking on December 29 after a second day of protests against price hikes that turned political and spread to multiple Iranian cities, Mohsen Hamadani, a deputy governor of Tehran Province, was quoted by state media as saying that law enforcement agencies would take tough measures against any future gatherings.
"There is no authorization for such protests," he was quoted as saying.
Despite the warning from Iranian authorities, the U.S. State Department and White House issued statements condemning the arrests and demanding that Tehran allow free expression by the protesters.
"There are many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with the regime's corruption and its squandering of the nation's wealth to fund terrorism abroad," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
"The Iranian government should respect their people's rights, including their right to express themselves. The world is watching," she said.
The State Department's spokeswoman said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was personally urging support for what he has described as "elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government."
"We urge all nations to publicly support the Iranian people and their demands for basic rights and an end to corruption," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
The protesters got some encouragement from Iranian clergy as well.
"Their protests, as well as other people's reaction to high prices, are unquestionaby just," said Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, a Friday Prayer leader and mid-ranking cleric in Iran's second-most-populous city, Masshad, where the protests began on December 28.
But al-Hoda also questioned whether the protests weren't also providing "food for hostile media" whose goal is "propagating sedition," using terms often used to described independent news outlets.
In an unprecedented comment, the head of Mashhad's revolutionary court, Hossein Haydari, said, "We consider protest to be the people's right, but if some people want to abuse these emotions and ride this wave, we won't wait and will confront them."
Other clerics condemned the protests as "anti-Islam" and said Israel and the United States were behind them.
But the demonstrators were urged on by the exiled former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who said that "the uprising, once again showed that overthrowing theocracy in Iran is a national demand."
Earlier on December 29 in Kermanshah, semiofficial news agencies Fars and Mehr reported that police dispersed a rally of some 300 people who chanted “Political prisoners should be freed" and "Freedom or death.”
Unconfirmed reports say that that up to 50 people were arrested in a demonstration in Kermanshah, on December 29, a day after hundreds protested against high prices and shouted political slogans in Mashhad.
Footage on social media showed protesters in Kermanshah's central Azadi Square chanting "Death to the dictator" and "The nation is struggling in poverty; The leader is trying to act as God."
Various chants appeared to target both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, without naming him, and President Hassan Rohani.
Similar protests were reported in several other cities, including Rasht, Ahvaz, Ghazvin, Qom, Isfahan, and Hamadan among others.
WATCH: Iranians In Eastern Cities Protest Over Economic Troubles (from December 28)
In Tehran, police arrested some 40 people who gathered for an unsanctioned rally, state media reported, quoting Hamadani.
Earlier, Hamadani was quoted as saying that law enforcement agencies would take tough measures against any gatherings in the wake of the protests in Mashhad.
Political rallies are rare in Iran, but demonstrations are often held over economic issues such as layoffs, nonpayment of salaries, and price hikes.
Fars news agency reported that police arrested 52 people after December 28 rallies in Mashhad. The semiofficial ILNA news agency reported there were smaller protests in Neyshabor, Kashmar, Yazd, and Shahrod on December 28.
Videos posted on social media showed some protesters in Mashhad chanting slogans including "Death to the dictator” and "Death to Rohani," with police using water cannons to push back the crowds.
Some others chanted “Leave Syria alone, think about us,” condemning Iran’s financial and military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are fighting government opponents in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency quoted Mohammad Rahim Norouzian, the Mashhad governor, as saying there was an illegal "No To High Prices" gathering in the city.
Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a Rohani ally, suggested that hard-line opponents of the president may have started the protests in Mashhad.
"When a social and political movement is launched on the streets, those who started it will not necessarily be able to control it in the end," IRNA quoted Jahangiri as saying.
"Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers. They think they will hurt the government by doing so," he warned.
Prices on many essential products, including eggs, have increased up to 40 percent in recent days. Farmers have blamed the hikes on higher prices for imported feed.
According to Iran’s Central Bank, inflation in the country is running at about 10 percent.
Rohani’s leading achievement, a 2015 deal with world powers that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in return for a lifting of most international sanctions, has yet to bring the broad economic benefits the government says are coming.
Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in this fiscal year, according to the Statistical Center of Iran, up 1.4 percent from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.