On July 28, the State Department condemned Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protests sparked by a water shortage. “We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces,” Spokesperson Ned Price said. As of July, more than 300 cities—nearly a fourth of all municipalities—faced water shortages caused by a severe drought. Protests erupted in southwestern Khuzestan province in mid-July and then spread to several other provinces. Price’s statement is below, followed by timeline of the demonstrations.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price
"Protests in Iran that began with a water shortage -- owing to drought and governmental mismanagement and neglect -- in the Khuzestan province have now spread across various cities including Tehran, Karaj and Tabriz. The Iranian people are now putting a spotlight not only on their unmet needs, but also their unfulfilled aspirations for respect for human rights -- rights to which individuals the world over are entitled.
"The Iranian people have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable, but we have seen disturbing reports that security forces fired on protesters, resulting in multiple deaths. We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protestors. We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces. We are also monitoring reports of internet slowdowns in the region.
"We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely access information, including via the Internet."
Timeline of Protests
July 15: In the evening, residents of Khuzestan province protested the water shortage and power outages. Protestors gathered in the streets of several cities, including the provincial capital of Ahvaz. Videos showed demonstrators lighting tires on fire and blocking roadways. Security forces reportedly used tear gas to disperse crowds. Anti-riot police appeared to fire live ammunition or less lethal bean bag rounds at demonstrators.
July 16: Two men were reportedly killed in the town of Shadegan amid a second night of protests in Khuzestan. One, Mostafa Naimawi, was killed by “opportunists and rioters” who were shooting at both protestors and security forces, according to Omid Sabripour, the acting county governor. Sabripour described Naimawi as a “30-year-old passerby.” The second young man who was killed, Qassem Khozeiri, was shot by unknown attackers after returning home from work at night, state-controlled media reported, citing his uncle. But human rights groups reported that Khozeiri was shot by security forces in the town of Kutabdollah. Amnesty International later reported that Khozeir’s family was coerced by intelligence agents to give a scripted statement on camera.
First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri dispatched the deputy energy, agricultural and budget ministers to Ahvaz to address the water shortage.
July 17: Residents of Khuzestan protested in Ahvaz and at least half a dozen other cities and towns. A young man, Ali Mazraeh, was reportedly shot and killed by security forces in Ahvaz, according to human rights groups. But Fars News Agency reported that Mazraeh had been arrested by security forces, not killed. Protestors in Shush reportedly blocked roads and overturned a Basij (paramilitary) vehicle. A video from Shadegan appeared to show protestors chanting “People want the regime to fall” in Arabic.
Deputy Governor General of Khuzestan, Valiollah Hayati, rejected reports about security forces killing protestors. “The enemies of the Islamic Republic have in recent days released some reports and footage which claim that three individuals have been killed in the province, which is completely false,” Hayati told reporters. He acknowledged that two young men, Naimawi and Khozeiri, had been killed, but said that only Naimawi’s death was connected to the protests. Hayati blamed stray gunfire by rioters for Naimawi’s death. He claimed that Khozeiri was killed after a family dispute unrelated to the demonstrations.
July 19: Protestors gathered in Ahvaz and at least four other cities in Khuzestan. Videos posted on social media showed demonstrators chanting and lighting fires to block roads. Security forces appeared to use tear gas to disperse crowds. In one city, Chamran, security forces reportedly opened fire.
In Parliament, Mojtaba Mahfouzi, the representative for Abadan, a major city in Khuzestan, called for relief during a floor speech. “Rescue Khuzestan and its oppressed people! Give back to it what it deserves!”
July 20: Residents of Khuzestan protested in several towns and cities. Videos circulated on social media showed security forces using tear gas to disperse crowds. Iranian media reported that rioters shot one policeman to death and wounded another in the coastal city of Mahshahr. Videos also showed protestors chanting “Death to Khamenei” in the city of Izeh.
In an interview, Naimawi’s father blamed “rioters and saboteurs” for the death of his son, who was killed on July 16. “My son was not a person who would go out for crime or rioting,” he told Fars News Agency.
Prominent human rights activists – including Jafar Azimzadeh, Arash Keykhosravi and Narges Mohammadi – gathered outside of the Interior Ministry in Tehran in solidarity with protestors in Khuzestan. Mohammadi’s husband said that the activists were beaten and briefly detained.
Videos posted on social media also showed people at a Tehran metro station chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic” and “Death to velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist).” The concept of velayat-e faqih is a foundational principle for Iran’s system of government, in which a cleric is the supreme leader.
July 21: Residents in several cities in Khuzestan protested despite the deployment of riot police and Basij forces. Videos posted to social media appear to show protests in Ahvaz, Behbahan, Dezful, Izeh, Masjed Soleyman, Ramshir and Susangerd. In Masjed Soleyman, demonstrators reportedly chanted, “Police, support us.”
Iranians in at least two other provinces rallied in solidarity with protestors in Khuzestan. Videos on social media showed a rally in the city of Yazdenshahr, Isfahan province, in central Iran. Residents also gathered in the city of Sheyban, Sistan and Baluchistan province, in southeast Iran.
State television reported that one civilian was killed and 14 police officers were injured during protests in Izeh city on July 20. State media also said that a security officer in the Taleghani district of Mahshahr city, also in Khuzestan, was killed and another was injured by “rioters” who fired on both security forces and demonstrators. The acting governor of Mahshar, Fereydoon Bandari, confirmed the death and injury.
Videos on social media showed the deployment of anti-riot forces at Tehran’s Azadi Square, but no protests were reported in the capital.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that officials were “obliged to address Khuzestan’s problems.” The Instagram post was his first public acknowledgement of the unrest. “No one can rest with comfort in the face of the difficult situation in Khuzestan if they care about people,” he added.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that the United States was closely monitoring the protests in Khuzestan. “We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves .... without fear of violence, without fear of arbitrary detention by security forces,” he said.
Cell phone internet service in southwestern Iran was disrupted starting on July 15, according to NetBlocks, a company that monitors global internet connectivity. The company warned that the regional shutdown was “likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world.”
July 22: Protestors again took to the streets of Ahvaz and other cities in Khuzestan. Videos from Mahshahr appeared to show security forces opening fire on demonstrators.
Protestors in Aligudarz, Lorestan province, gathered in support of demonstrators in neighbouring Khuzestan province. Videos showed them chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One video appeared to show security forces shooting at demonstrators. A police official told Fars News Agency that several demonstrators were detained after four police officers were shot.
Videos on social media showed protests in three other provinces. In Shahin Shahr,a city in Isfahan province, residents held a rally in solidarity with Khuzestan. A small demonstration was also held in the town of Jonghan in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwestern Iran. In Borazjan, a city in Bushehr province in southwest Iran, protestors blocked a main road with burning tires. In a public square in Ganaveh, another city in Bushehr province, young men chanted “Don’t be afraid, we are all together.”
President Rouhani said that residents of Khuzestan “have the right to speak, express themselves, protest and even take to the streets within the framework of the regulations.” He appeared to allude to the reported killings but implied that security forces were not responsible. “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 in a televised speech.
In a phone call, Rouhani told the governor of Khuzestan, Qassem Soleimani Dashtaki, that people “should not doubt that the government is listening to their legitimate protests and is making every effort to solve the problem of water shortage quickly.”
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said that security forces had been ordered to immediately release detainees in Khuzestan who had not committed a criminal act. “Protest is a natural and acceptable right in the Islamic Republic,” he tweeted.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sent tens of water tankers to the Dasht-e Azadegan area of Khuzestan, Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour said. “Another group of tankers are on the way and will help to address the people's water problem. Basij (volunteer forces) and the IRGC, along with the provincial officials, are standing by people with all their power,” he added.
President-elect Ebrahim Raisi expressed concern about Khuzestan’s water crisis and pledged that his government would work to address the problem. “In order not to waste time until the formation of the new government, we convened this meeting to find operational solutions to solve the problems of the province and to implement everything possible from now,” he said in a special meeting on the issues of Khuzestan province.
July 23: Protestors reportedly took to the streets in several cities and towns in Khuzestan, including Abadan, Ahvaz, Dezful and Mahshahr. Videos showed protestors marching in Aligudarz, Lorestan province, for a second day in a row.
In a speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei acknowledged the plight of Khuzestan’s residents. Water shortages are “not a minor issue, considering the hot weather in Khuzestan,” he said. Demonstrators “cannot be blamed, and their problem should be addressed.” But Khamenei also warned people to be vigilant because Iran’s enemies may want “to take advantage of the situation.”
First Vice President Jahangiri arrived in Khuzestan to survey the province’s problems. He met with Arab and Bakhtiari tribal leaders as well as local officials. Jahangiri also toured agricultural and water projects.
State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said that the United States supports the rights of Iranians to “voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable.” She said that Washington was closely following reports of internet shutdowns and use of deadly force by security forces. “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 told reporters.
Iran’s security forces have deployed unlawful force to crush peaceful protests in Khuzestan. The systematic impunity that continues to take lives in Iran must end. pic.twitter.com/ius6H8dwMZ— Amnesty International (@amnesty) July 24, 2021
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called on Iran to address the water crisis and criticized the crackdown on protests. “The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the Government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” she said. “I am extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention.” Bachelet also warned that “shooting and arresting people will simply add to the anger and desperation.”
Amnesty International reported that security forces had killed at least eight protesters and bystanders in seven different cities since July 15. “Using live ammunition against unarmed protesters posing no imminent threat to life is a horrifying violation of the authorities’ obligation to protect human life. Protesters in Iran who take to the streets to voice legitimate economic and political grievances face a barrage of gunfire, tear gas, and arrests,” said Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
July 24: Protestors reportedly gathered in at least four cities in Khuzestan. In Ahvaz and Mahshar, security forces reportedly used tear gas and fired guns toward protestors to disperse the crowds.
Demonstrators gathered in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province in Iran’s northwest, to show support for Khuzestan’s residents. Protestors also held rallies in Bojnourd, in the northeast province of Khorasan, and Saqez, in the eastern province of Kurdistan, to show solidarity.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh rejected remarks by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights as “interventionist.” Bachelet’s “non-expert and biased comments on the management of the country's water resources were not within the scope of [the] commissioner's responsibilities,” he said.
Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of the IRGC, arrived in Ahvaz to examine Khuzestan’s problems and check on the status of IRGC and Basij water supply projects. “[W]e are committed and loyal to these people. We do not leave them alone, and we stand by them during hardships, as was the case in the 2019 flood,” he said.
July 25: Protestors reportedly demonstrated in several cities in Khuzestan, including Ahvaz, Mahshahr, and Shadegan. Videos showed the deployment of security forces across the province. Residents reported that the internet was shut down in several cities.
Protesters took to the streets in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province, in support of Khuzestan’s residents.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, head of the national judiciary, ordered Sadegh Moradi, the chief justice of Khuzestan, to immediately release protestors who were detained.
July 26: Videos showed a protest on a major street in Tehran in the morning. Demonstrators marched down Islamic Republic Avenue and chanted “Police, support us.“ Some demonstrators also chanted slogans critical of the government, including “Death to the dictator,” “Mullahs get lost,” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon. I give my life for Iran,” a critique of Iran’s regional policies. The protestors dispersed peacefully. Hamidreza Goodarzi, the deputy governor of Tehran, said that the protest was due to power outages.
In Karaj, the capital of Alborz province, videos showed protestors marching and chanting “Death to the dictator.” Karaj is so close to Tehran that it is often considered a suburb. Videos also showed protestors gathering in a square in Fardis, another city in Alborz.
In Kermanshah, the capital of Kermanshah province in western Iran, a video showed protestors burning tires in a road at the city’s entrance.
In Isfahan, the capital of Isfahan province, residents demonstrated against the shutoff of water to the Zayandeh River. “Give Isfahan’s breath back, give Zayandeh River back,” they chanted. Authorities had temporarily allowed water to flow from a dam after demonstrations earlier in July.
Residents also reportedly took to the streets of Ahvaz and clashed with security forces.
During a cabinet meeting, President Rouhani reiterated his support for the right to protest but suggested that internal opposition forces and Iran’s adversaries were also behind the unrest. “Civil protest is one of the fundamental rights of all members of the nation, and managers have a duty to listen to the protests and be humble and tolerant, but there is no doubt that behind these incidents are the dirty hands of the enemy and the provocations of some internal groups,” he said.
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, and Julia Dickson, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, contributed to the timeline.