PRO-GOVERNMENT demonstrations have been taking place in cities across Iran after a week of protests and unrest over the country’s poor economy, according to state media.

The move was apparently seeking to calm nerves amid clashes that have killed at least 21 people.

The anti-government protests, the largest in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election, began on December 28 in the city of Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest, over a weak economy and a rise in food prices. They have since expanded to cities and towns in nearly every province.

Hundreds have been arrested, and a prominent judge warned that some could face the death penalty.

English-language broadcaster Press TV broadcast yesterday’s pro-government rallies live, saying they were to “protest the violence that has taken place over the last few nights in cities”. Demonstrators waved Iranians flags and signs supporting Iran’s clerically overseen government.

The rallies come after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed days of protests across the country on meddling by “enemies of Iran”.

“Look at the recent days’ incidents,” he said. “All those who are at odds with the Islamic Republic have utilised various means, including money, weapons, politics and [the] intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution.”

He avoided identifying any foreign countries, although he promised to elaborate in the coming days. Undoubtedly high on his list is the US, where President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the protests.

Tehran has since shut down access to Telegram and the photo-sharing app Instagram, which join Facebook and Twitter in being banned, in an attempt to slow the unrest. The Trump administration called on Tehran to stop blocking social media sites.

Undersecretary of state Steve Goldstein said Instagram, Telegram and other platforms are “legitimate avenues for communication”.

The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court also reportedly warned that arrested protesters could potentially face the death penalty.

“Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying.

Nearly nine years ago, massive crowds marched through the streets of Iran’s major cities demanding change, in the first major challenge to the rule of hard-line Muslim clerics since they came to power in 1979.

The move was sparked in the summer of 2009 when the reformist opposition claimed the re-election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rigged. Millions of people protested nationwide over the next few months, in what became known as the “Green Movement”.

The crackdown by authorities was brutal. The elite Revolutionary Guard and their volunteer force, known as the Basij, opened fire on marchers and carried out a wave of arrests. Dozens of protesters were killed, many more were jailed and tortured, and the movement’s political leadership was put under house arrest.

Now, Iran’s Islamic Republic is seeing a new wave of unrest. This time it appears more spontaneous, fuelled by anger over a still-faltering economy, unemployment and corruption. The movement is most commonly referred to on social media as “Protests Everywhere”.

The past days’ fury has burst out mainly in mid-sized cities and towns. The protests have been smaller – in the hundreds or, at most, a few thousand – but they have swiftly erupted in far more places compared with eight years ago.