Street protests hit Iran for a third day running, spreading to the capital Tehran with crowds confronting police and attacking some state buildings, and a social media report said two demonstrators had been shot dead in a provincial town.

The wave of anti-government demonstrations, prompted in part by discontent over economic hardship and alleged corruption, are the most serious since months of unrest in 2009 that followed the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The protests, in fact, coincided with state-sponsored rallies staged across the Islamic Republic to mark the final suppression of the 2009 unrest by security forces, with mass pro-government events in Tehran and Mashhad, Iran's second city. Pro-government rallies were held in some 1200 cities and towns in all, state television reported.

At the same time, anti-government demonstrations broke out anew in a string of cities and in Tehran for the first time where protesters confronted and stoned riot police around the main university, with pro-government crowds nearby.

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Videos posted on social media from the western town of Dorud showed two young men lying motionless on the ground, covered with blood, and a voiceover said they had been shot dead by riot police firing on protesters. Other protesters in the video chanted, "I will kill whoever killed my brother!" The video, like others posted during the current protest wave, could not be immediately authenticated.

In earlier footage, marchers in Dorud shouted, "Death to the dictator," referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Social media video from Mashhad showed protesters overturning a riot police car and police motorcycles set ablaze.

In Tehran, the semi-official news agency Fars said up to 70 students gathered in front of its main university and hurled rocks at police, also chanting, "Death to the dictator."

Social media footage showed riot police using clubs to disperse more protesters marching in nearby streets, and arresting some of them. The student news agency ISNA said police shut two metro stations to prevent more protesters arriving.

In Tehran and Karaj west of the capital, protesters smashed windows on state buildings and set fires in the streets. Images carried by the semi-official news agency Tasnim showed burning garbage bins and smashed-up bus shelters after the protests subsided.

A university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police. Photo / AP
A university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police. Photo / AP

US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that "the entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change".

The demonstrations were the largest since the 2009 uprising. "This is more grassroots. It's much more spontaneous, which makes it more unpredictable," Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said of the current protests. "Things are not working out economically for ordinary Iranians. But the root causes, and the much deeper resentment, goes back decades. People do not feel this regime represents them."

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Rouhani, a moderate, was re-elected in May, in the hopes he would continue to open Iran up to the world. But he has so far failed to deliver on promises of a revived economy in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal that was his signature achievement.

That agreement with world powers curbed Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for international sanctions relief. But rampant corruption, an unreformed banking sector, and unilateral US sanctions have all hindered recovery, hurting ordinary Iranians.

Rouhani's proposed budget in December called for slashes to cash subsidies and an increase in fuel prices. New and added fees for things like car registration and an unpopular departure tax sparked fierce public debate. Anger over the budget, and a recent 40 per cent jump in the price of eggs, helped stir the protests, analysts said.

"Since Rouhani entered office, he has managed to inflate expectations with lofty rhetoric but has actually done little to change the reality of life on the ground in Iran," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies in Washington.

According to a protester from the western city of Kermanshah, who spoke to the New York-based centre for Human Rights in Iran, "people poured into the streets . . . because they are tired of the rising cost of living". The centre maintains a wide network of contacts inside Iran. "When we don't have bread to eat, we are not afraid of anything," the protester said.

- Washington Post, Reuters