Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians protesting over water shortages in the country’s drought-hit southwest cannot be blamed, and called on officials to deal with the crisis, according to state media.
“The people showed their displeasure … but we cannot really blame the people and their issues must be taken care of,” Khamenei was quoted on Friday by Iranian news agencies as saying, in his first direct mention of the weeklong protests.
“Now, thank God, all the various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are working [to resolve the water crisis] and should continue with all seriousness,” Khamenei said.
His comments came after street protests spread late on Thursday from the oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province to Aligudarz, a town in Lorestan province, where police said one youth was shot dead with pellet guns and seven were wounded.
“Yesterday evening, rioting broke out for several hours in some streets in Aligudarz,” state media said, adding that people had taken to the streets “on the pretext of the water problems in Khuzestan”. “Shots were fired by unknown elements,” the broadcaster said, adding that security forces had been deployed to tackle rioters.
The semi-official news agency Fars quoted police as saying several people were arrested after the unrest and the shootings in Aligudarz, which a police official blamed on “counter-revolutionaries”.
Unverified videos purportedly from Aligudarz showed protesters chanting slogans against Khamenei. Other footage showed two young men who appeared to have been shot.
At least one policeman and three young men had been shot dead in earlier protests, but there were fears of more deaths.
On Friday, Amnesty International said at least eight people have been killed since the protests began.
“Video footage verified by Amnesty … and consistent accounts from the ground indicate security forces used deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas to disperse protesters,” it said.
Officials have blamed “rioters”, but activists said on social media the protesters were killed by security forces in Khuzestan, where sporadic internet slowdowns or blackouts have been reported for several days.
Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said it could “corroborate widespread user reports of cellular network disruptions, consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests”.
Iran’s economy has been blighted by harsh sanctions imposed by former United States President Donald Trump and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers, including thousands in the key energy sector, and pensioners have protested for months amid discontent over mismanagement, unemployment and inflation.
President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech on Thursday that Iranians have “the right to speak, express themselves, protest and even take to the streets, within the framework of the regulations”.
Khuzestan is Iran’s main oil-producing region and one of its wealthiest, but it has been battered by droughts and water shortages for years due to summer heatwaves and seasonal sandstorms blowing in from Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Iraq. This year, the situation worsened due to extremely high temperatures.
Officials acknowledge that the province has been hit hard, but they claim separatist groups are to blame for the violence and accuse foreign media of trying to take advantage of the situation to oppose the theocratic establishment.
In 2019, the region also saw some of the largest crowds during nationwide protests that formed over the abrupt tripling of petrol prices. Amnesty International said at least 208 people were killed during those protests as internet access was almost completely cut off across the country for nearly a week.