DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Tuesday appealed for national unity and sought to allay anger against the country’s rulers, even as anti-government protests that swept the country for weeks continued to spread to universities and high schools.
Raisi acknowledged that the Islamic Republic had “weaknesses and shortcomings”, but reiterated the official statement that the unrest sparked last month by the death of a woman in the custody of the country’s vice squad was nothing less than a plot by the enemies of Iran.
“Today, the country’s determination is to work together to reduce people’s problems,” he told a parliament session. “Unity and national integrity are necessities that make our enemy hopeless.”
His claims matched those of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blamed the United States and Israel, the country’s opponents, for inciting unrest in his initial comments about the nationwide protests on Monday. It is a well-known tactic for Iran’s leaders, who have been suspicious of Western influence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and often blame domestic problems on foreign enemies without providing evidence.
The protests, which sprung up 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 embroiled dozens of cities across the country and have become the most widespread challenge to the Islamic Republic. Iran’s leadership in years. A series of protracted crises have fueled public anger, including the country’s political repression, ailing economy and global isolation.
The extent of the ongoing unrest, the most in more than a decade, still remains unclear as witnesses report spontaneous gatherings across the country involving small acts of defiance – such as protesters shouting slogans from rooftops, cutting their hair and burn their state-imposed headscarves.
Hard-hitting newspaper Kayhan on Tuesday tried to downplay the scale of the movement by saying that “anti-revolutionaries,” or those opposed to the Islamic Republic, “are in the absolute minority, possibly 1%.”
But another hard-hitting paper, the Jomhuri Eslami daily, cast doubt on the government’s claims that foreign countries were responsible for the unrest in the country.
“Neither foreign enemies nor domestic opposition can bring cities into a state of riots without a background of discontent,” the editorial read. “The denial of this fact will not help.”
Iran’s security forces have tried to disperse demonstrations with tear gas, metal pellets and in some cases with live fire, human rights groups say. Iranian state television reports that at least 41 people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and police, but human rights groups say the number is much higher.
An escalating crackdown on the press, with dozens of journalists arrested in recent weeks, has choked most independent coverage of sensitive issues, such as the deaths of protesters.
However, the recent disappearance and death of a 17-year-old girl in Tehran has sparked a torrent of anger on Iranian social media.
Nika Shahkarami, who lived with her mother in the capital, disappeared overnight during the protests in Tehran last month, her uncle Kianoush Shakarami told the semi-official Tasnim news agency. She went missing for a week before her lifeless body was found on a street in Tehran and was returned to her family, Tasnim reported, adding that relatives had not received official notice of how she died.
Iranian activists based abroad claim she died in police custody, with hundreds circulating her photo and using her name online as a hashtag for the protest movement. Prosecutor in western Lorestan province, Dariush Shaoonvand, denied any wrongdoing by authorities and said she was buried in her village on Monday.
“Foreign enemies have tried to create a tense and fearful atmosphere after this incident,” he told the Hamshari Daily, without elaborating on what happened.
As the new academic year kicked off this week, demonstrations quickly spread to college campuses, long considered sanctuaries in times of turmoil. Videos on social media showed students expressing solidarity with peers who had been arrested and calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. Stirred by the unrest, many universities have 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 holed up in a parking lot, preventing them from leaving. The student union reported that the police arrested hundreds of students, although many were later released.
In one video on Monday, students from Tarbiat Modares University marched in Tehran, chanting, “Captive students must be released!” In another, students poured 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 seemed to grip the gender-segregated high schools in 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 city of Sanandaj on Monday, according to widely shared images.
The response of the Iranian security forces has led to widespread condemnation. On Monday, President Joe Biden said his administration was “gravely concerned about reports of intensifying violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters in Iran, including students and women.”
The British Foreign Office summoned the Iranian ambassador to London.
“The violence by the security forces against protests in Iran is truly shocking,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.
Security forces have rounded up untold numbers of protesters, as well as performers who have expressed support for the protests. Local officials report at least 1,500 arrests.
Shervin Hajipour, an Iranian singer who emerged as something of 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 rejoined his family in Iran’s northern city of Babolsar.
In his somber ballad ‘Because of’ he sings why Iranians are revolting.
“To dance in the street,” he says. “For my sister, for your sister, for our sisters.”