Iran's President Hassan Rouhani finally broke his silence on the ongoing anti-government protests but did not condemn slogans such as "death to Khamenei" and "death to the dictator".

The protesters have been calling for the ouster of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since Thursday, 28 December, in what has been described as the largest upheaval against the government since 2009. The protests began over the failing economy and falling standards of living, but are gradually spiralling into a larger anti-government campaign with people demanding an end to alleged corruption.

Rouhani's reaction came on Sunday, 31 December, while addressing a cabinet session. Throwing his weight behind such gatherings, he said people should be free to express their demands but should not resort to destruction of public property.

"We are a free nation and based on the constitution and citizenship rights, people are completely free to express their criticism and even their protest," said the reformist Iranian president, a moderate cleric.

He even admitted that there are shortcomings which would leave Iranians dissatisfied but pointed fingers at his predecessors for much of the problems. He said: "Some of the economic problems of people date back to some years ago, while some others are related to the present day. The government and nation should join hands and help each other. However, people's criticism does not pertain to the economy alone. People have things to say about corruption and transparency. They say things should be transparent."

Images of Khamenei, who is hardly ever criticised in public, were brought down by angry protesters. As the protests take a dramatic turn from economic grievances to political demands, calls are also being made for Khamenei to step down.

The Iranian president turned his guns on US President Donald Trump, who earlier wrote on Twitter that Iranians were "finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism".

Responding to Trump's support for the protests, Rouhani said: "This gentleman in America, who is now trying to sympathise with our nation, appears to have forgotten that he called the Iranian nation terrorists several months ago. This man, who is an enemy of the Iranian nation from the top of his head to his very toes, has no right to sympathise with Iranians."

Iran anti-government protests
People protest in multiple Iranian cities against the economic policies and alleged government corruption Reuters