Iran's supreme leader blames U.S., Israel for Mahsa Amini protests

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded publicly on Monday to the biggest protests in Iran in years, breaking weeks of silence to condemn what he called "rioting" and accuse the United States and Israel of planning the protests.

Top technology university shut to most students following unrest on Sunday

Iran's riot police forces stand in a street in Tehran on Monday. (West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded publicly on Monday to the biggest protests in Iran in years, breaking weeks of silence to condemn what he called "rioting" and accuse the United States and Israel of planning the protests.

The unrest, ignited by the death of a young woman in the custody of Iran's morality police, is flaring up across the country for a third week despite government efforts to crack down.

On Monday, Iran shuttered its top technology university following an hours-long standoff between students and the police that turned the prestigious institution into the latest flashpoint of protests and ended with hundreds of young people arrested.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a graduation ceremony at a police academy in Tehran, Iran's capital, on Monday. ( Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

Speaking to a cadre of police students in Tehran, Khamenei said he was "heartbroken" by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, calling it a "sad incident." However, he sharply condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilize Iran, echoing authorities' previous comments.

"This rioting was planned," he told the students. "These riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees."

Hours of turmoil

Meanwhile, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran announced that only doctoral students would be allowed on campus until further notice following hours of turmoil on Sunday evening, when witnesses said anti-government protesters clashed with hardline, pro-establishment students.

The witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the police kept hundreds of students holed up on campus and fired rounds of tear gas to disperse the demonstrations. The university's student association said that police and plainclothes officers surrounded the school from all sides and detained at least 300 students as protests rocked the campus after nightfall.

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Plainclothes officers beat a professor and several university employees, the association reported.

The IRNA news agency sought to downplay the violent standoff, reporting a "protest gathering" took place without causing casualties. But it also said police released 30 students from detention, acknowledging many had been caught in the dragnet by mistake as they tried to go home.

The crackdown sparked a backlash on Monday at home and abroad.

"Suppose we beat and arrest, is this the solution?" asked a column in the Jomhouri Eslami daily, a hardline Iranian newspaper. "Is this productive?"

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German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock condemned the "regime's brute force" at Sharif University as "an expression of sheer fear at the power of education and freedom."

"The courage of Iranians is incredible," she said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he remains "gravely concerned about reports of the intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran, including students and women, who are demanding their equal rights and basic human dignity."

"The United States stands with Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their bravery," Biden said in a statement.

People run during clashes with riot police as students protest in Tehran on Sunday. (Reuters)

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told reporters: "It is absolutely essential to show maximum restraint, maximum containment, when dealing [with] demonstrations all over the world, and the same is valid, obviously, for Iran."

Iran's latest protest movement, which has produced some of the nation's most widespread unrest in years, emerged as a response to Amini's death after her arrest for allegedly violating the country's strict Islamic dress code. However, it has grown into an open challenge to the Iranian leadership, with chants of "Death to the dictator" echoing from the streets and balconies after dark.

Well of grievances

The demonstrations have tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country's social restrictions, political repression and an ailing economy long strangled by U.S. sanctions.

Protests, with women burning their state-mandated headscarves and crowds chanting for the downfall of the ruling clerics, have continued in Tehran and far-flung provinces

Protests also have spread across the Middle East and to Europe and North America. Thousands poured into the streets of Los Angeles to show solidarity. Police scuffled with protesters outside Iranian embassies in London and Athens. Crowds chanted "Woman! Life! Freedom!" in Paris.

In his remarks on Monday, Khamenei condemned scenes of protesters ripping off their hijabs and setting fire to mosques, banks and police cars as "actions that are not normal, that are unnatural."

Security forces have responded with tear gas, metal pellets and in some cases live fire, according to rights groups and widely shared footage, although the scope of the crackdown remains unclear.

Iran's state TV has reported that the death toll from violent clashes between protesters and the security officers could be as high as 41. Rights groups have given higher death counts, with London-based Amnesty International saying it has identified 52 victims, including five women and at least five children.

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An untold number of people have been apprehended, with local officials reporting at least 1,500 arrests. Security forces have picked up dozens of artists and activists who have voiced support for the protests, as well as dozens of journalists in the widening dragnet. Most recently on Sunday, authorities arrested Alborz Nezami, a reporter at an economic newspaper in Tehran.

Khamenei said those who foment unrest to "sabotage" the country deserve harsh prosecution and punishment. Young people who "come to the streets after excitement after watching something on the internet," he added, should be "disciplined."

Most of the protesters appear to be under the age of 25, according to eyewitnesses — Iranians who have grown up with global isolation and severe Western sanctions linked to Iran's nuclear program. Talks to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear deal have stalled for months, fuelling public discontent as Iran's currency declines in value and prices soar.

As the new academic year began this week, students gathered in protest at universities across Iran, according to videos widely shared on social media, chanting slogans against the government and denouncing security forces' clampdown on demonstrators.