DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday publicly responded to the biggest protests in Iran in years, breaking weeks of silence to condemn what he called “riots” and the United States and Israel accused of planning the riots protests.
The unrest sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of Iran’s morality police has flared up across the country for a third week, despite government efforts to crack down.
On Monday, Iran shut down its top tech university after an hours-long standoff between students and police that made the respected institution the latest focus of protests and ended with the arrests of hundreds of young people.
Speaking to a cadre of police students in Tehran, Khamenei said he was “deeply heartbroken” at the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, calling it a “tragic incident”. However, he called the protests a foreign conspiracy to destabilize Iran, echoing the authorities’ earlier comments.
“These riots were planned,” he said. “These riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime and their employees.”
Meanwhile, Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology announced that after hours of unrest on Sunday when witnesses said anti-government protesters clashed with pro-establishment students, only graduate students would be allowed on campus until further notice.
The witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said police holed up hundreds of students on campus and fired tear gas to break up the demonstrations. The student union said plainclothes officers surrounded the school from all sides as after-dark protests roiled the campus and arrested at least 300 students.
Plainclothes officers beat a professor and several university employees, the association added.
The state news agency IRNA tried to downplay the violent standoff by reporting that a “protest assembly” took place without casualties. But it also said police released 30 students from custody and acknowledged many had accidentally gotten caught in the trawl while trying to go home.
The move sparked backlash at home and abroad on Monday.
“Suppose we beat and arrest, is that the solution?” asked a column in the daily Jomhouri Eslami, an uncompromising Iranian newspaper. “Is that productive?”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock condemned the “regime’s brute force” at Sharif University as “an expression of sheer fear of the power of education and freedom”.
“The courage of the Iranians is incredible,” she said.
Iran’s latest protest movement, which has spawned some of the country’s most widespread unrest in years, emerged in response to Amini’s death after her arrest for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. It has since become an open challenge to Iran’s leadership, with women burning their state-mandated headscarves and chants of “death to the dictator” echoing from streets and balconies after dark.
The demonstrations tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country’s social restrictions, political repression and ailing economy that has been stifled by American sanctions. Unrest in Tehran and distant provinces continues despite authorities shutting down internet access and blocking social media apps.
The protests have also spread across the Middle East, as well as to Europe and North America. Thousands flocked to the streets of Los Angeles to show solidarity. Police tussled with demonstrators in front of Iranian embassies in London and Athens. The crowd chanted “Woman! Life! Freedom!” in Paris.
In his remarks on Monday, Khamenei condemned scenes in which protesters tore off their hijabs and set fire to mosques, banks and police cars as “actions that are not normal, unnatural”. He warned that “those who foment unrest to sabotage the Islamic Republic deserve harsh prosecution and punishment.”
Security forces have responded with tear gas, metal pellets and, in some cases, live fire, according to human rights groups and widely circulated footage, although the extent of the crackdown remains unclear.
Iranian state television has reported that the death toll could reach 41 in violent clashes between protesters and security officials. Rights groups have given higher death tolls, with London-based Amnesty International saying it has identified 52 victims.
Scores of people have been arrested, with local officials reporting at least 1,500 arrests. Security forces have arrested artists who spoke out in support of the protests and dozens of journalists. Most recently, the authorities arrested Alborz Nezami, a reporter for a business newspaper in Tehran, on Sunday.
Iranian intelligence said nine foreigners had been arrested over the protests. A 30-year-old Italian traveler named Alessia Piperno called her parents on Sunday to say she had been arrested, her father Alberto Piperno told Italian news agency ANSA.
“We are very concerned,” he said. “The situation is not going well.”
Most of the protesters appear to be under the age of 25, according to witnesses — Iranians who grew up with little but global isolation and severe Western sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. Talks to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear deal have stalled for months, fueling discontent as Iran’s currency depreciates and prices soar.
A Tehran-based university teacher, Shahindokht Kharazmi, said the new generation has found unpredictable ways to defy the authorities.
“The (young protesters) have learned the strategy from video games and are playing to win,” Kharazmi told the pro-reform newspaper Etemad. “For them there is no defeat.”
As the new academic year began this week, students at universities in major cities across Iran gathered in protest, clapping, chanting anti-government slogans and waving their headscarves, according to videos widely shared on social media.
Eruptions of student anger have troubled the Islamic Republic since at least 1999, when security forces and hardliner supporters attacked students protesting media restrictions. This wave of student protests under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami sparked the worst street clashes since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now,” chanted students at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University as women set fire to their hijabs.
“Students are awake, they hate the leadership!” crowds chanted at the University of Mazandaran in the north of the country.
Riot police are in force, patrolling streets near universities on motorcycles.
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