Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has responded publicly to the biggest protests seen in the country in years following the death in custody of a 22-year-woman by saying the unrest had been planned by the US and Israel.
Khamenei described the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police, which set off weeks of nationwide protests, as “a sad incident” that “left us heartbroken”.
However, he sharply condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilise Iran, echoing authorities’ previous comments.
“This rioting was planned,” he told a cadre of police students in Tehran.
“I say clearly that these riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.”
He added of the protests: “Such actions are not normal, are unnatural.”
His comments come as nationwide protests sparked by Ms Amini’s death entered a third week despite the government’s efforts to crack down on them.
Authorities have repeatedly blamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups for fanning the unrest, without providing evidence.
The protests over Ms Amini’s death have tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country’s surging prices, high unemployment, social restrictions and political repression.
Demonstrations have continued in Tehran and far-flung provinces even as authorities have restricted internet access to the outside world and blocked social media apps.
Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest over the death of the 22-year-old, who had been detained by Iran’s morality police in the capital Tehran for allegedly not adhering to Iran’s strict Islamic dress code.
The protesters have vented their anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic. The nationwide demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
Demonstrations against Ms Amini’s death have also taken place in other countries including Turkey, Lebanon and France.