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Protesters arrested in Iran after rally against price hikes

Associated Press

Iranians angry over rising food prices and inflation protested in the country's second-largest city and other areas Thursday, putting new pressure on President Hassan Rouhani as his signature nuclear deal with world powers remains in peril.

The protests in Mashhad saw police make an unspecified number of arrests, local authorities said, though the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates did not intervene as they have in other unauthorized demonstrations since Iran's disputed 2009 election.

It wasn't immediately clear how many people took part in Thursday's protests, though social media posts suggest several thousand likely demonstrated at rallies across at least three other cities.

Iran's state-run IRNA news agency quoted the governor of the northeastern city of Mashhad, Mohammad Rahim Norouzian, as saying there was an illegal "No to high prices" gathering in the city.

"Police gave them the necessary notifications and treated them with great tolerance," he said.

Norouzian said police arrested a number of people who intended to destroy public property, without elaborating.

The prices of several staples, including eggs, have risen by up to 40 percent in recent days, with farmers blaming the hikes on higher prices for imported feed. Poultry is an important part of the diet of many of Iran's 80 million people, and previous price increases have caused political problems for its leaders in the years since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

So has inflation, which Iran's Central Bank says has returned to 10 percent. Youth unemployment remains high.

Tempers rose further after Rouhani submitted his 2018 budget to parliament, which raises departure taxes for those flying out of the country.

Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leilaz told The Associated Press that Rouhani's political rivals may have played a role in organizing the protests, saying "the hands of political groups could be seen in today's gathering in Mashhad."

But he said the administration still faces a major challenge.

"There are more than 3 million jobless in Iran, and more than 35 percent of Iranians are under the poverty line. These are Rouhani's problems, and could kill any government. I won't be shocked if inflation hits 12 percent."

All this comes as the U.S. Congress weighs President Donald Trump's refusal to re-certify the nuclear deal. Many Iranians now say they agree with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's repeated warnings the U.S. can't be trusted.

Khamenei also has kept up his criticism of how Rouhani's administration has handled the economy, which includes the supreme leader's opposition to allowing foreign firms to fully enter Iran. The Revolutionary Guard, a hard-line paramilitary organization, has vast economic interests in the country.

The Guard did not mobilize its Basij volunteer forces to counter any of the protests Thursday. However, some protests saw criticism of Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country's civil war, in which the Guard has played a major role.

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Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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