Security forces opened fire during protests over water shortages in Iran’s oil-rich southwest to “protect” protesters, a semi-official news agency said on Tuesday, after authorities blamed demonstrators for the death of a man during the ongoing protests.
The protests, which began on July 15, continued for a fifth consecutive night on Monday in multiple cities in the Khuzestan province, including the provincial capital Ahwaz, Susangerd (al-Khafajiya), and Ramhormoz, according to videos shared on social media.
Protesters could be heard chanting in Arabic, as the region is home to a large ethnic Arab population that has long said it faces discrimination in Iran.
Gunshots could be heard in some videos, while one video showed security forces opening fire towards protesters.
Fars, an Iranian news agency close to the country’s Revolutionary Guards, said security forces opened fire during the demonstrations “to protect the protests and demands of the people of Khuzestan.”
Over the past few nights, the protests “have been diverted by terrorist and sabotage groups,” it added.
Activists said they have verified two deaths caused by security forces since protests began on Thursday. The two slain protesters have been named by rights groups as Mostafa Naeemawi and Qassem Khozeiri.
So far, the government has only acknowledged the death of one person – Naeemawi – blaming it on “rioters.” Iranian officials, who typically use the term “rioter” to refer to protesters, have in the past blamed deaths during demonstrations on protesters.
Some social media users have reported a significant decrease in internet speed in Khuzestan since Saturday. Iran shut down access to the internet for several days during widespread anti-government protests in 2019.
The water crisis has devastated agriculture and livestock farming and caused power outages, which sparked protests in several cities earlier this month.
Authorities have blamed the water shortages on a severe drought, but protesters say the government is to blame.
Activists from Khuzestan blame the water crisis on the government’s “discriminatory” policies – such as the excessive transfer of water from Khuzestan to ethnically Persian provinces – which they say are designed to change the region’s demography.
The protests in Khuzestan come as thousands of workers in Iran’s key energy sector have launched strikes for better wages and working conditions.
Iran’s economy has been hit hard since 2018 when former US President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sweeping sanctions on the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the country’s economic problems.