Iran’s supreme leader breaks silence on protests, blames US

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded publicly Monday to Iran’s biggest protests in years, breaking weeks of silence to condemn what he called “riots” and blame the U.S. and Israel that they were planning the demonstrations.

Khamenei said he was “devastated” by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who was detained by Iran’s morality police, which sparked nationwide protests, calling her death a “sad incident”. But he strongly condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilize Iran, echoing earlier comments by authorities.

“This uprising was planned,” he told a cadre of police students in Tehran. “These riots and insecurities were planned by America and the Zionist regime and their employees.”

He described scenes of protesters ripping off their headscarves and setting fire to mosques, banks and police cars as “abnormal” and “unnatural”.

His comments come as nationwide protests sparked by Amini’s death entered a third week despite government efforts to crack down.

Iran’s state television said the death toll from violent clashes between protesters and security officers could reach 41, without giving details. Human rights groups have given higher death tolls, with London-based 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 arrests.

Authorities have repeatedly blamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups for fomenting the unrest, without providing evidence.

Protests over Amini’s death have tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country’s rising prices, high unemployment, social restrictions and political repression. Protests have continued in Tehran and far-flung provinces, even as authorities have restricted internet access to the outside world and blocked social media apps.

As the new academic year began this week, students gathered in protest at universities across Iran, according to videos widely shared on social media, chanting anti-government slogans and decrying security forces’ crackdown on protesters.

Universities in major cities including Isfahan in central Iran, Mashhad in the northeast and Kermanshah in the west have held demonstrations with crowds of students clapping, shouting and burning state-mandated headscarves.

“Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now,” chanted students at Shahid Beheshti University in the capital Tehran, as women took off their hijabs and set them on fire in protest of Iran’s law requiring women to cover their hair.

“The students are awake, they hate the leadership!” shouted crowds of students at the University of Mazandaran in the north of the country.

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