Iran's president said on Thursday that "acts of chaos" are not acceptable, in a warning to protesters who have taken to the streets across the country to vent their fury over the death of a woman in the custody of the morality police.
Speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Ebrahim Raisi added that he had ordered an investigation into the case of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died last week after being arrested for wearing "unsuitable attire."
"There is freedom of expression in Iran ... but acts of chaos are unacceptable," said Raisi, who is facing the biggest protests in the Islamic Republic since 2019.
At least nine people have died in clashes between Iranian security forces and protesters, according to a tally from The Associated Press. An anchor on Iran's state television suggested Thursday that the death toll from the mass protests could be as high as 17, but he did not say how he reached that figure.
Women have played a prominent role in the demonstrations, waving and burning their veils, with some cutting their hair in public in a direct challenge to clerical leaders.
Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard called on the judiciary to prosecute "those who spread false news and rumours," in an apparent bid to take the steam out of nationwide demonstrations. The Guard also expressed sympathy for Amini's family.
Iran's Ministry of Intelligence also tried to break the momentum of the demonstrations, saying that attending protests is illegal and anyone who takes part would face prosecution, Iranian news websites reported.
Meanwhile, protesters in Tehran and other Iranian cities torched police stations and vehicles as public outrage showed no signs of abating, with reports of security forces coming under attack.
The Kurdish rights group Hengaw posted a video where heavy shooting can be heard during a protest, and it accused security forces of "using heavy and semi-heavy weapons against civilians" in the northwestern town of Oshnavieh.
Video posted on the Twitter account 1500tasvir showed protests in the northwestern city of Bukan with the sound of shots in the background. Protesters shouted, "We will die, we will die, but we'll get Iran back," near a police station, which was set on fire. The account focuses on protests in Iran and has about 100,000 followers. The videos could not be independently verified.
Social media posts said demonstrations have spread to most of Iran's 31 provinces.
Most of the unrest has been concentrated in Iran's Kurdish-populated northwest. Amini was from the province of Kurdistan.
WATCH | United Nations official calls for probe:
Raisi said the extensive coverage of Amini's case was the result of "double standards."
"Every day in different countries, including the United States, we see men and women dying in police encounters, but there is no sensitivity about the cause and dealing with this violence," he said.
Pro-government protests are planned for Friday, and some of those marchers have already taken to the streets, Iranian media said.
The U.S. on Thursday imposed sanctions on Iran's morality police, accusing them of abuse and violence against Iranian women and of violating the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters, the U.S. Treasury said.
A new mobile internet disruption was registered in the country, internet monitoring group Netblocks wrote on Twitter, in a possible sign that the authorities fear the protests will intensify.
Nour news, a media outlet affiliated with a top security body, shared a video of an army officer confirming the death of a soldier in the unrest, bringing the total reported number of security force members killed to five.
WATCH | Death sparks worldwide protests:
Amini's death has reignited anger over such issues as restrictions on personal freedoms in Iran — including strict dress codes for women — and an economy reeling from economic sanctions.
Iran's clerical rulers fear a revival of the 2019 protests that erupted over gasoline price increases, the bloodiest in the Islamic Republic's history. Reuters reported 1,500 people were killed.
Protesters this week also expressed anger at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Mojtaba, may you die and not become Supreme Leader," a crowd was seen chanting in Tehran, referring to Khamenei's son, who some believe could succeed his father at the top of Iran's political establishment.
Reports by the Kurdish rights group Hengaw, which Reuters also could not verify, said the death toll in Kurdish areas had climbed to 15 and the number of injured to 733. Iranian officials have denied that security forces have killed protesters, suggesting they may have been shot by armed dissidents.