Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Tuesday called for national unity and tried to quell anger at the country’s leadership as protests critical of the government that had lasted for weeks continued to spread through universities and high schools.
Raisi acknowledged that the Islamic Republic had “weaknesses and shortcomings”, but repeated the official line that the unrest sparked last month by the death of a woman in the custody of the country’s vice police was nothing short of less than a plot by Iran’s enemies.
“Today, the country’s determination is aimed at cooperation to reduce people’s problems,” he told a parliamentary session. “Unity and national integrity are necessities that render our enemy hopeless.”
The protests, which emerged in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code, have entwined dozens of cities across the country and become the biggest challenge. most rumored for Iran’s leadership in years. A series of festering crises have helped fuel public anger, including the country’s political repression, struggling economy and global isolation.
The scale of the ongoing unrest, the most sustained in more than a decade, remains unclear as witnesses report spontaneous rallies across the country with small acts of defiance – protesters shouting slogans from rooftops, cutting each other hair and burning their state-mandated headscarves.
“A background of discontent”
The radical daily Kayhan tried on Tuesday to play down the scale of the movement, saying that the “anti-revolutionaries”, or those who oppose the Islamic Republic, “are in an absolute minority, perhaps 1%”.
But another radical newspaper, the daily Jomhuri Eslami, questioned the government’s claims that foreign countries were responsible for the country’s unrest.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini accused the United States and Israel of inciting the unrest on Monday, while the government also blamed the unrest on Kurdish opposition groups in the northwest of the country.
“Neither foreign enemies nor domestic opposition can plunge the cities into a state of riot without a bottom of discontent,” reads its editorial.
Iranian security forces have sought to disperse protests with tear gas, metal pellets and, in some cases, live fire, rights groups say. Iranian state television reports that violent clashes between protesters and police have killed at least 41 people, but human rights groups say the number is much higher.
A growing crackdown on the press, with dozens of journalists arrested in recent weeks, has stifled most independent reporting on sensitive issues such as the deaths of protesters.
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The recent disappearance and death of a 17-year-old girl in Tehran, however, sparked a wave of anger on Iranian social media.
Nika Shahkarami, who lived in the capital with her mother, disappeared one night last month during protests in Tehran, her uncle Kianoush Shakarami told the Tasnim news agency.
She disappeared for a week before her lifeless body was found on a street in Tehran and returned to her family, Tasnim reported, adding that her relatives had not received official information on how she died. .
Iranian activists based abroad claim she died in police custody, with hundreds of people circulating her photo and using her name as an online hashtag for the protest movement. Western Lorestan province prosecutor Dariush Shahoonvand denied any wrongdoing by authorities and said Shahkarami was buried in her village on Monday.
“Foreign enemies tried to create a tense atmosphere after this incident,” he told the Hamshari daily, without giving further details of what happened.
Protests spread to universities
As the new academic year began this week, the protests spread to college campuses, long considered sanctuaries in times of unrest. Videos posted on social media showed students expressing solidarity with their peers who had been arrested and calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. Shaken by the unrest, many universities moved classes online this week.
Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology became a battleground on Sunday as security forces surrounded the campus from all sides and fired tear gas at protesters who had holed up in a parking lot, preventing them from leaving.
In a video on Monday, students from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran marched and chanted: “The imprisoned students must be freed! In another, students marched through Khayyam University in the conservative city of Mashhad shouting, “Sharif University has become a prison! Evin prison has become a university! — referring to Iran’s infamous prison in Tehran.
Protests also appeared to grip gender-segregated high schools across Iran, where groups of young schoolgirls waved their hijabs and chanted “Woman! Life! Freedom!” in the city of Karaj west of the capital and in the Kurdish town of Sanandaj on Monday, according to widely shared images.
The Iranian security forces’ response has been widely condemned. On Monday, US President Joe Biden said his administration was “gravely concerned by reports of escalating violent repression”.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said “the violence in protests in Iran by security forces is truly shocking”.
Security forces gathered countless numbers of protesters, as well as artists who expressed their support for the demonstrations. Local officials report at least 1,500 arrests.
Shervin Hajipour, a singer who became a protest icon for his wildly popular song inspired by Amini’s death, was arrested last week. His lawyer said he was released on bail on Tuesday and joined his family in the northern town of Babolsar.
In his dark ballad, “For the Love of,” he sings about why Iranians are rising up to protest.
“To dance in the streets,” he intones. “For my sister, for your sister, for our sisters.”