Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said unrest in the country following the death in custody of a woman had been planned by the United States and Israel.
The ayatollah described the death of Mahsa Amini (22) in Tehran while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police, which set off weeks of nationwide protests, as “a sad incident” that “left us heartbroken”.
However, he condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilise Iran, echoing authorities’ previous comments.
“This rioting was planned,” he told a cadre of police students in Tehran. “I say clearly that these riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.”
The ayatollah added of the protests: “Such actions are not normal, are unnatural.”
He said it was the duty of the security forces to “ensure the safety of the Iranian nation,” referring to the protests that are now in their third week.
His comments come as nationwide protests sparked by Ms Amini’s death entered a third week despite the government’s efforts to crack down on them.
Authorities have repeatedly blamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups for fanning the unrest, without providing evidence.
The protests over Ms Amini’s death have tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country’s surging prices, high unemployment, social restrictions and political repression.
Demonstrations have continued in Tehran and far-flung provinces even as authorities have restricted internet access to the outside world and blocked social media apps.
The protesters have vented their anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic. The nationwide demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
Demonstrations against Ms Amini’s death have also taken place in other countries including Turkey, Lebanon and France.
Sharif University of Technology in Tehran announced that only doctoral students would be allowed on campus until further notice following hours of turmoil on Sunday evening, when witnesses said antigovernment protesters clashed with hard-line pro-establishment students.
One witness said police kept hundreds of students on campus and fired rounds of tear gas to disperse the demonstrations.
The university’s student association said that police and plainclothes officers surrounded the school from all sides and detained at least 300 students as protests rocked the campus after nightfall.
Plainclothes officers beat a professor and several university employees, the association reported.
The state-run IRNA news agency sought to downplay the violent stand-off, reporting a “protest gathering” took place and ended without casualties.
Demonstrations over Ms Amini’s death have grown into an open challenge to the Iranian leadership, with chants of “Death to the dictator”, echoing from the streets and balconies after dark.
Security forces have responded to the unrest with tear gas, metal pellets and in some cases live fire, according to rights groups and widely shared footage, although the scope of the crackdown remains unclear.
Iran’s state TV has reported the death toll from violent clashes between protesters and the security officers could be as high as 41. Rights groups have given higher death counts, with Amnesty International saying it has identified 52 victims, including five women and at least five children.
An untold number of people have been arrested, with local officials reporting at least 1,500 seized. — AP