TEHRAN - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday praised a "massive movement of the people against the plots of the enemies", accusing the United States and Israel of inciting anti-government demonstrations.
Pro-government rallies have been held across the country since late December, according to Iranian state media, following several days of opposition protests which sparked violence that left 21 dead.
Such a "popular mobilisation against the enemy's plots targeting the regime... doesn't exist anywhere (else) in the world," Khamenei said in a speech broadcast by Iranian media.
He accused the United States and "the Zionists" of spending months preparing demonstrations in small towns in the hope that they would spread to the capital.
"This will not go unanswered," he said.
"The money came from the rich governments of the Persian Gulf and the perpetrators were the criminal Monafeghin group," he added.
Monafeghin ("hypocrites" in Persian) is a label Iranian authorities use for the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, an outlawed opposition group.
The anti-government protests had used the slogan "no to high living costs", which "pleases everyone", he said.
"But the people, who were not very many, quickly dissociated themselves (from the movement) when they realised the real objectives" of the instigators, he said.
Khamenei said there was a distinction between "the just demands of the people and the wild and destructive actions of this group".
He said protests for rights had nothing to do with "burning the Koran, insulting Islam, insulting the flag and burning mosques".
The anti-government demonstrations were the biggest such movement in the tightly controlled country since protests over a disputed election in 2009.
- Protester's death -
An investigation has been opened into the death in custody of a young Iranian in Tehran's infamous Evin prison, the judiciary said Tuesday, with a lawmaker linking the death to the protests.
"An investigation was immediately opened and the prison guards and other people have been interrogated," said Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, according to the judiciary-linked Mizanonline.
A reformist lawmaker, Mahmoud Sadeghi, had earlier tweeted: "Unfortunately, one of the protesters arrested in the recent troubles is dead in Evin prison."
Other officials denied the claim, saying the individual, identified as Sina Ghanbari, was linked to drug-trafficking and had committed suicide.
"This individual was not arrested during the recent protests and had nothing to do with the recent demonstrations," an unnamed judicial official told the reformist ILNA news agency.
Another prison official said Ghanbari had hanged himself in the toilets.
The outspoken MP, Sadeghi, had earlier warned of a "second Kahrizak" after the protests that rocked the country for five days over the new year.
Kahrizak was a notorious prison in south Tehran where at least three protesters were tortured to death during mass demonstrations in 2009.
The prison was shut down and several officials put on trial, with the city's chief prosecutor at the time, Said Mortazavi, sentenced to two years in prison in November for his role in one of the deaths.
Various figures have come from official sources over the number arrested over the recent unrest which hit several dozen towns and cities, with Sadeghi putting the total at 3,700.
Officials have said the majority have since been released, with only the main "instigators" facing trial.