Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said on Thursday that citizens have the right to protest after days of demonstrations against water shortages in Khuzestan province in which three people have been killed.
The south-western province is Iran’s main oil-producing region, but has been struggling with an intense drought since March.
The people of Khuzestan “have the right to speak, express themselves, protest and even take to the streets within the framework of the regulations,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast on state television.
At least three people have been killed, including a police officer and a protester, according to Iranian media and officials, who have accused “opportunists” and “rioters” of shooting at protesters and security forces.
“It is possible that a malicious person could take advantage of the situation, come in the middle of it all and use a gun, shoot and kill one of our dear citizens,” Rouhani said.
Farsi-language media based abroad have broadcast videos they said were of protests in several towns and cities, showing hundreds of people marching and chanting slogans against authorities while surrounded by riot police.
It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the videos.
“If there is a problem, I ask the people of Khuzestan to solve it legally,” Rouhani said.
Khuzestan is home to a large Arab minority, and its people regularly complain of being marginalised. The province was a hotspot of anti-government protests that also shook other areas of Iran in 2019.
Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary general of the supreme national security council, said on Thursday that “the security forces had been ordered to immediately release those detained during the recent incidents in Khuzestan who had not have committed a criminal act”.
Summer heatwaves and seasonal sandstorms blowing in from Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Iraq have dried up Khuzestan’s once fertile plains in recent years.