Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the United States, Israel and what he refers to as "traitor" Iranians for orchestrating unrest, as mass protests continued across Iran over the weekend. The ongoing protests were sparked by the death in custody of a young woman named Mahsa Amini three days after being arrested by the notorious 'morality' police.
In his first public statement since protests first broke out, more than two weeks ago, Khamenei said Monday that the death of 22-year-old Amini “deeply broke" his heart, and he called it a “bitter incident”. However he also condemned the protests as a foreign plan to destabilize a “developing” and “powerful” Iran.
Khamenei condemned the scenes of protesters removing their hijabs and setting fire to mosques, banks and police cars.
"We were heartbroken [by news of Amini’s death]. But the reaction to this incident – while no investigation has been done and nothing is certain – should not have been for some people to come and make the streets insecure, make people feel unsafe, harm the security forces, burn the Quran, and for women to remove the hijab,” he said.
Khamenei described the unrest as "not normal" and "not natural". He said that if Amini had not died in custody, the protesters “would invent another pretext to cause chaos” in Iran.
"I'm clearly saying that the rioting and unrest were pre-planned," he told a group of police students in the capital city of Tehran. "They were planned by America and the Zionist regime, as well as traitor Iranians who live outside the country.”
"[The United States and Israel] feel like our country is developing and becoming powerful, and this unrest is what they want to see,” Khamenei said during a joint graduation ceremony held for students studying in the academies of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Armed Forces.
He said of the protesters, who are mainly women, that there are different kinds of people among them, and they should be treated differently.
"All these people who come out and commit acts of destruction are not the same," he said. "Some of them are young, teenagers, and they are just out on the streets after watching something online. If you punish them, they will understand that they were wrong."
He has also shown his strong support for security forces clashing with the protesters across the country.
"The job of our security forces, including the police, is to ensure the safety of the Iranian nation... Protesters who attack the police are leaving Iranian citizens defenceless against thugs, robbers and extortionists," Khamenei said.
Iranian security forces have tried to restrict the ability of protesters to organize, and for news outlets to report on what is happening, with an online crackdown which blocks social media apps, limits internet access and silences celebrities who voice their support for the movement via social media.
"They are not important. We should not be sensitive about what they say," Khamenei said of Iranian celebrities who have shown public support for the protesters. Some of them have reportedly been arrested and some have had their passports and properties confiscated by security forces.
His remarks come as concerns were high on Sunday night after riot police stormed Sharif University in Tehran.
Witnesses have said security forces attacked the university where students had been staging a sit-in. Students were beaten and fired at with shotguns. One informed source from within Sharif University told IranWire that no one had been killed but many were injured. No injured individuals have been taken to hospital.
Many Iranians, particularly young women, have come to see Amini's death as part of Iran's heavy-handed policing of dissent and the morality police's increasingly violent treatment of young women.