A leading Iranian Sunni cleric has called on the country’s Shia clerical leadership to organize a referendum, as security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in several mainly Sunni cities in the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan.
"The majority of people aren’t happy," Molavi Abdol Hamid said in his Friday sermon, adding: "Hold a referendum in the presence of international observers, and accept the result."
Molavi , the Friday prayer leader in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchestan’s capital, did not provide any details about the proposed vote.
The wave of protests that has convulsed majority Shia Iran for more than six weeks has caused one of the boldest challenges to the country's rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The protests have included cries calling for the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
The mainly peaceful protest movement has remained unabated, despite a fierce crackdown by security forces in which several thousand people were arrested, detainees were subjected to torture, and more than 270 people were killed. Dozens of security forces have also been killed, according to state media.
"You cannot push back a nation that has been protesting on the streets for the past 50 days by killing, imprisoning and beating them," Molavi said.
The nationwide protests were initially focused on the Islamic Republic's mandatory hijab policy, with crowds of young women removing their headscarves in the street. But the demonstrations rapidly grew into calls for the overthrow of the theocracy that has ruled Iran for more than four decades.
"These women have been disrespected [and] humiliated. Because they are deprived of everything and the covering of their heads is the only important thing for the government, they set headscarves on fire," Molavi said.
"Women in Iran hate the hijab.”
After Friday prayers, angry protesters took to the streets of Zahedan, Rask, Soran, Khash and other cities in the province, chanting slogans against the government, social media footage show.
Rasad Balochistan news channel reported that a peaceful rally in Khash ended in chaos after a riot squad fired live ammunition at the protesters.
Armed forces also fired shots and tear gas at the Noor Saravan mosque in Zahedan and prevented people from leave the facility.
Sistan and Baluchistan borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is one of Iran’s poorest provinces and home to a Sunni Baluch minority estimated to number up to 2 million people.
Zahedan was the scene of a violent crackdown on September 30 in which security forces killed 92 people, including 12 children, according to IranWire sources. Four security forces were also killed that day, dubbed Zahedan’s Black Friday.
The incident was the deadliest in the widespread protests triggered by the September 16 death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police.
Officials said a Shia cleric in Zahedan was shot dead on November 3, threatening to enflame sectarian tensions.