TEHRAN, Iran — Breaking his silence over nationwide protests that included calls for his ouster, Iran's supreme leader on Tuesday blamed the demonstrations on "enemies of Iran," saying they were meddling in its internal affairs.
The remarks by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the demonstrations — the largest seen in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election — came after a bloody night that saw protesters try to storm a police station and the first deaths among its security forces. The unrest has killed at least 21 people in the past six days.
The protests began Dec. 28 in Mashhad over the weak economy and a jump 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.
Speaking to black-chador-clad women who were relatives of veterans and war dead, the 78-year-old Khamenei warned of an enemy "waiting for an opportunity, for a crack through which it can infiltrate."
"Look at the recent days' incidents," he said. "All those who are at odds with the Islamic Republic have utilized various means, including money, weapons, politics and (the) intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution."
Khamenei avoided identifying any foreign countries, although he promised to elaborate in the coming days. Undoubtedly high on his list is the U.S., where President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the protests for several days.
On Tuesday, he wrote that "the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime."
"All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their 'pockets,'" Trump wrote, apparently referring to the nuclear deal reached under his predecessor. "The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!"
It is unclear what effect Trump's tweets are having on the protests. Iran's state TV reported on his tweets in its news broadcasts, and some people have shared them online, but many in Iran distrust him because he has refused to re-certify the 2015 nuclear deal and his travel bans have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi urged Trump to stop tweeting and focus on his own country's problems.
"It is better for him to try to address the U.S.' internal issues like the murder of scores killed on a daily basis in the United States during armed clashes and shootings, as well as millions of the homeless and hungry people in the country," Ghasemi said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
The U.S. called for the U.N. Security Council and Human Rights Council to hold emergency meetings on Iran, with American U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley saying that "the U.N. must speak" on the issue. She said the U.S. will be calling for emergency sessions in the coming days.
"Nowhere is the urgency of peace, security and freedom being tested more than in Iran," Haley said, adding that U.S. officials "applaud the tremendous courage of the Iranian people."
Khamenei, who has final say over all state matters, has blamed foreign adversaries for domestic unrest in the past. In 2009, as Green Movement demonstrations rattled his government, he said the postelection unrest was calculated by Iran's enemies "whether or not its leaders know."