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Iran’s top leader says he understands protests over drought

July 23, 2021 GMT
In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 23, 2021. Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday said he understands protesters' anger over a drought in the country's southwest, as a fourth death related to ongoing demonstrations there was reported. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
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In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 23, 2021. Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday said he understands protesters' anger over a drought in the country's southwest, as a fourth death related to ongoing demonstrations there was reported. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
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In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 23, 2021. Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday said he understands protesters' anger over a drought in the country's southwest, as a fourth death related to ongoing demonstrations there was reported. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s Supreme Leader leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday said he understands protesters’ anger over a drought in the country’s southwest, as a fourth death related to ongoing demonstrations there was reported.

The remark, reported by state television, was the first direct comment on the protests by Khamenei since the demonstrations began in the Khuzestan region a week ago. The semiofficial news agency Fars reported that a man was killed by shotgun fire in street violence in the nearby city of Aligoudarz; police blamed the slaying on “counterrevolutionary elements.”

“People showed their discontent, but we cannot have any complaint since the issue of water in the hot climate of Khuzestan is not a minor issue,” Khamenei was quoted as saying. He accused Iran’s enemies of trying to exploit the situation.

He praised the people of the region for their loyalty and efforts during the devastating war against Iraq in the 1980’s, adding that “the people should not face problems“ anymore.

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Protests have taken place in many cities and towns of Khuzestan, according to the Human Rights Activists in Iran group. Security forces have fired tear gas and water cannons, and have clashed with demonstrators, the group added.

On Friday, Amnesty International said security forces had used live ammunition during the protests, and it urged them not to do so. “Using live ammunition against unarmed protesters posing no imminent threat to life is horrifying,” Amnesty said in a statement.

Iranian state media had previously reported that a police officer and two civilians had been killed amid the protests. The reports pointed out online videos, alleging they show demonstrators carrying firearms. Iran has in the past blamed protesters for deaths that occur during heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces.

Mobile phone internet service in Iran was disrupted during the protests, according to Internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks.org.

In Washington, State Department’s deputy spokesperson Jalina Porters told reporters that the administration was “closely following reports” of the protests in Iran as well as reports of “government-imposed internet shutdowns in the region.”

“We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their universal rights of freedom of expression as well as freely access information online,” she said.

The protests in Khuzestan come as Iran struggles through repeated waves of infection amid the coronavirus pandemic, and as thousands of workers in its oil industry are on strike to demand better wages and working conditions.

Iran’s economy has also struggled under U.S. sanctions since then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and imposing harsh sanction, crashing the value of the Islamic Republic’s currency, the rial.