Iranian police used teargas to quell clashes between protesters and security forces in southern Tehran on Tuesday as demonstrations over shortages of water turned violent.
Tehran’s prosecutor general, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, said protesters had thrown stones at buildings, damaged them with firebombs and set fires in three towns, Press TV reported.
While that could not be independently confirmed, the way in which law enforcement dispersed the crowds appeared to reinforce fears of a more serious escalation in the ongoing protests sparked by the economy and that has attracted people across Iran since 25 November.
Police said on Tuesday night they had arrested 186 people for their involvement in the two days of violence in Tehran. The government had previously said 85 people were detained after violence in the capital.
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But unlike previous large-scale protests in recent months, the ringleaders of this one have not been arrested, and demonstrations have continued on the second day.
On Tuesday, families who have been living on dirt streets and many others who do not have water and electricity saw water from dried up springs being piped to their homes. But residents saw it as preferential treatment and took to the streets in protest.
Unrest was reported in at least a dozen of Iran’s provinces, and there have been reports of fresh violence in the capital, cities and other towns on Tuesday.
Demonstrators protesting against unemployment and the economic hardship have been met with a hardline backlash in the wake of the unrest. However, on the second day of protests, police appeared to begin to back down, to the extent that Tehran residents said they could breathe a sigh of relief.
A local resident told the Guardian by phone: “In the morning, I saw fire in several places, but during the day the situation was quieter, with no clashes and water pressure increased. There was no presence of armed and masked men at the main roads, in the city centre.”
Others who live in the capital and witnessed protests on Tuesday said there were few protesters, while in the rural areas the presence of armed individuals was noticeable.
Protests appeared to be significantly weaker in the more conservative areas of the south of the country, including the city of Ahvaz, a flashpoint in past years.
The protests took place under a hot sun on Monday, with the temperature in Tehran rising to 34C (93F) – nearly 15C above the recommended safety level.
Iran’s government was forced to adopt measures to control the situation, including an increase in the number of anti-riot police and a ban on public assemblies in Tehran.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced on Sunday that he had ordered authorities to increase pressure on protesters and to “prevent people turning to sabotage and criminal activities”.
“Now we know that action must be stepped up so that the public will learn that they are the ones on the side of the law,” he said.
Faisal Jurow, the deputy head of Iran’s police force, said on Monday: “These developments must be contained. This is not the moment for vengeance and punishing but this is a time for martyrdom.”
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However, arrests and deadly crackdowns have increased in recent days.
In the border city of Zahedan, demonstrators went on a rampage on Monday, breaking into stores and killing at least one person, local media reported. There were also reports that several protesters had been killed in the capital, Tehran.
Authorities launched a crackdown on unrest on Sunday. Security forces arrested those taking part in protests but did not use force against those taking part peacefully, despite calls for “death to the regime”.
Answering for the country’s economic shortcomings, the president, Hassan Rouhani, has vowed that his government will not introduce economic measures “under the pressure of protests”. However, he has said that it is necessary to “protect the public”.
Addressing a crowd on Monday night, Rouhani said: “Iran is a republic and no one can interfere in the republic’s matters. Anyone who fights against the revolution will have to answer to God.”
A list of foreign companies whose exports or investment were targeted in the protests shows that they include small and medium-sized businesses of UK and US firms including engineering companies Lloyds Bank, Honeywell, Vodafone, chip-maker Qualcomm and financial giant Morgan Stanley.