TEHRAN — Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic had emerged victorious in the course of the ongoing unrest that has gripped his country since mid-September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody.
"The Islamic Republic proved that it is strong," he declared during a key address broadcast live by state television from a holy shrine in the conservative city of Mashhad on Tuesday. The speech marked the start of national holidays for the new Iranian year, known as Nowruz.
He described the public protests as "riots" and a "global conspiracy" plotted by Iran's enemies. "The president of a country like America entered the scene," he said, accusing the United States and some European states of fueling the unrest with financial and military support and saying that "a very small number of Iranians took part."
The Islamic Republic's security forces have killed at least 530 protesters nationwide in the course of the unrest, according to the Human Rights News Activists News Agency, which monitors political developments in Iran. Iranian authorities have also admitted to have detained over 22,000 people in the crackdown.
At the turn of the new Iranian year on the first hour of March 21 local time, many residents in large cities including the capital Tehran, Karaj, Mashhad, Shiraz and Rahst chanted "death to Khamenei" from rooftops or behind windows and renewed calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
«فقر، فساد، گرونی، میریم تا سرنگونی»— Vahid Online (@Vahid) March 20, 2023
«مرگ بر خامنهای»
شهرک اکباتان، تحویل سال ۱۴۰۲#نوروز #مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/BSwL17yvBd
In Kurdish-populated areas, which have witnessed much of the worst state violence over the past six months, tensions ran particularly high as protesters gathered at cemeteries to commemorate victims. In Saghez, the birthplace of Amini, mourners carried torches around her grave and chanted revolutionary songs. In Mahabad, at least 30 people were injured after they were fired upon by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to the Kurdish news agency Hengaw.
On the early hours of March 21, 2023, repressive forces in Mahabad opened fire on people who came to the streets to celebrate Newroz.— Hengaw Organization for Human Rights (@Hengaw_English) March 21, 2023
According to sources, more than 30 citizens were wounded, and most of them are women and children.#JinaAmini#Kurdistan pic.twitter.com/4UtbX6htU8
Only a day into the new Iranian year, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Australia slapped Islamic Republic officials and entities with fresh sanctions over their involvement in human rights violations and their abusive treatment of women.
UN Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman told the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva on the same day that the heavy-handed response by Iranian authorities may amount to "crimes against humanity."
Khamenei denies isolation
Repeatedly cheered by his loyalists, the Iranian leader downplayed what he called a Western plot to "isolate" the Islamic Republic. "It has backfired," he said, arguing that the ruling theocracy has now strengthened ties with Asian states and "has boosted relations with regional countries."
Khamenei did not mention a specific state, but earlier this month, Iran signed a Chinese-mediated deal with its arch-rival Saudi Arabia, agreeing to resume ties after seven years of particular hostilities.
On the war in Ukraine, Khamenei once again shrugged off Western criticism over Tehran's deliveries of combat drones to Moscow.
"In no way are we involved in the Ukraine war," he claimed, repeating the official line in which Russia is never named, let alone being criticized for the invasion. "This is a war launched by America for an eastward NATO expansion. … America and its arms manufacturers are the ones reaping the biggest profits out of it."