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Iran's elite guard says anti-government protests are over

[TEHRAN] Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps declared an end to the anti-establishment unrest that has roiled the Islamic Republic and left about 20 people dead over the past week.

The "sedition" has ended, the state-run Islamic Students News Agency reported, citing Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari. "The enemies should know that threats against Iran's defense and security no longer work." Hundreds of people have been detained in the clampdown on the unrest, which started on Thursday with a protest in the holy city of Mashhad against the economic policies of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who favours closer ties with the West. Hardline clerics in the city expressed their support for the protesters.

But as the unrest spread to other cities, crowds started to target the broader religious and political establishment, and even Iran's ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, largely seen as above criticism.

The turmoil, always thought unlikely to become an existential threat, comes at a critical time for Iran. The nuclear accord that Mr Rouhani's government struck with world powers in 2015 as a way out of economic decline is being assailed by President Donald Trump, who accuses Iran of using its regional military clout to support terrorism and counter US interests. European signatories have so far remained united in their support of the deal and Mr Rouhani - but a dramatic security crackdown on protesters would have made that harder.

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There were no reports of fresh protests in Tehran on Wednesday, amid a heavy police presence. Pro-government demonstrations took place in other Iranian cities, even as a senior official struck a conciliatory tone over protesters' demands.

"There a sense that the situation may be settling down, though it doesn't necessarily mean a return to normality," said Vincent Eiffling, an Iran researcher at the Belgium-based Centre d'Etudes des Crises et des Conflits Internationaux. "The establishment is busy taking back the streets with the pro-government demonstrations."

Local officials and clerics joined demonstrators to "condemn the riots" of the past few days, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said Wednesday. The counter rallies were held in Ahvaz, Bushehr, Qom, Kermanshah and Gorgan, Press TV reported.

Data suggest the economy is gradually recovering since the nuclear deal lifted a host of crippling sanctions. The International Monetary Funds expects non-oil gross domestic product to maintain growth of about 3.7 per cent this year, a rate higher than in the majority of energy-rich countries in the Middle East.

The improvement, however, has been slowed by Mr Trump's policy shift and the reluctance of many European companies to invest while the US is adding sanctions. Unemployment remains high. Some banks and other credit institutions need urgent restructuring, the IMF says.

"We had an election which saw very high participation levels and most of the people who turned out voted for Rouhani," Saeed Leylaz, a pro-Rouhani economist, said in an interview in Tehran. "Their support doesn't suddenly collapse after six or seven months."

Still, some people taking part in the pro-government demonstrations "may share some of the grievances of the protesters," said Mr Eiffling. The difference is that they "don't agree with some of the violent methods used as they are afraid it may destabilize the country."

Earlier, Iran's labour minister struck a conciliatory tone, pledging to listen to the demands of protesters.

"We are all responsible when it comes to recent events," Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ali Rabei said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. "The government and authorities will listen to people's demands and will make every effort to materialise them."

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