TEHRAN, Iran — The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sunday called angry protesters who have been setting fire to public property over an increase in gas prices “thugs,” signaling a potential crackdown on the demonstrations.
Ayatollah Khamenei backed the government’s decision to raise the government-set prices for gasoline by 50 percent as of Friday. Since the increase took effect, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major highways and joined mass protests in two dozen cities, including Tehran, the capital. Some protests turned violent.
The authorities have since shut down the internet across Iran to smother the protests. One firm said it was the biggest internet outage ever seen in Iran.
Though largely peaceful, the demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos appearing to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires.
On Sunday, the Iranian authorities raised the official death toll to at least two. One police officer was killed in Kermanshah on Saturday as protesters attacked a police station, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. Earlier, one man was reported killed.
In an address broadcast by state television on Sunday, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “some lost their lives and some places were destroyed,” but he did not elaborate. He called violent protesters “thugs” who had been pushed into violence by counterrevolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran. He specifically called out those aligned with the family of Iran’s late shah, ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called Mujahedeen Khalq.
“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by the people,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “This is what thugs do.”
He made a point, however, of backing the decision of President Hassan Rouhani and other officials to raise gasoline prices to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter. Even with the increase, gasoline is among the cheapest in the world. It now costs 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. In the United States, a gallon of regular gasoline costs $2.60 on average.
Ayatollah Khamenei ordered security forces “to implement their tasks” and urged citizens to keep clear of violent demonstrators.
That seemed to signal a crackdown could be looming. Economic protests in late 2017 and early 2018 were met by a heavy reaction by the police and the Basij militia, the all-volunteer force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
“Such illegal actions would not solve any problem but add insecurity on top of other problems,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “Lack of security is the biggest calamity for any country and society. That is what they are looking for.”
The protests have renewed pressure on the Iranian government as it struggles to overcome United States sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy.
While representing a political risk for Mr. Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, the protests also show widespread anger among Iranians, who have seen their savings evaporate with high unemployment and the collapse of the national currency, the rial.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Mr. Rouhani had been pushing for months to increase prices to pay for social welfare programs. While the increase was expected eventually, the decision to raise gasoline prices practically overnight still caught many by surprise.
Iran also experienced wide disruptions and outages of internet service on Friday and Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, connectivity had fallen to just 7 percent of ordinary levels, NetBlocks said.
“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” the group said. The internet firm Oracle called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
The tensions in Iran came as weeks of antigovernment protests have engulfed Iraq and Lebanon, two nations that are crucial to Tehran’s influence abroad.
Iran has suffered economic problems since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 cut off the country’s decades-long relationship with the United States. Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s followed, further straining its economy.
The collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal has exacerbated those problems. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to $1 at the time of the accord, fell to 122,600 to $1 in trading on Saturday. Over the past few months, Iran has begun breaking terms of the deal as it tries to force Europe to help it find a way to evade American sanctions.
The United States has said little so far about the protests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter late Saturday: “As I said to the people of Iran almost a year and a half ago: The United States is with you.”
In Dubai, the new American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates told The Associated Press that America was “not advocating regime change. We are going to let the Iranian people decide for themselves their future.”
“They are frustrated. They want freedom,” the ambassador, John Rakolta, said at the Dubai Airshow. “These developments that you see right now are their own people telling them, ‘We need change and to sit down with the American government.’”