In his first public comments over the situation in the southwestern province of Khuzestan where protests over water shortage continue, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei termed the people’s grievances as legitimate.

Indicting officials for inattention toward the oil-rich province bordering Iraq, Khamenei said Friday that the complaints should have been redressed much before to prevent the situation from coming to a boil.

He said it is “painful” to see people in the province, full of natural resources, grapple with problems of water scarcity, especially in the scorching summer heat.

The angry protests in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan, home to ethnic Arabs, have entered the second week.

Protests erupted last week in multiple cities of the province over a severe water shortage, a problem that recurs every summer affecting agricultural activity, their main source of livelihood.

Protesters have demanded that water stored in a number of dams over rivers flowing into the plains be released so that they can irrigate their farms. Authorities blame the situation on a “worst drought”.

At least three people, including one policeman, have so far been killed in the protests, which have lately turned violent. Government officials blame “rioters” for the violence.

Khamenei, in his remarks after receiving the second dose of domestically-developed Cov-Iran Baraket vaccine in Tehran, said the people of Khuzestan cannot be blamed for airing their grievances, urging the authorities to address their demands.

In recent days, many senior Iranian officials have expressed concern over the boiling situation in Khuzestan.

President Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call with the provincial governor on Thursday, described protests as “the right of people”, saying the government is “listening to their legitimate grievances”.

Interestingly, many opposition figures and lawmakers have blamed the incumbent government over myriad problems facing the arid region, while the government has appeared to deflect the blame.

Ayatollah Arafi, a top clergyman and a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, in a statement termed the situation in Khuzestan a “matter of shame”.

Mohsen Rezaei, a senior conservative figure and former presidential candidate, in his statement said no province faces “as many unsolved problems and issues” as Khuzestan does, blaming the successive governments for it.

The province is home to many oil refineries and thereby considered the heartland of the country’s energy production. But the local population has always complained of discrimination and indifference on part of the central government.

While protests continue unabated, the provincial prosecutor has warned against any acts of violence, insecurity or disruption of public order.

The last time Khuzestan was rocked by major protests was in July 2018 over similar demands.

This time the protests have come amidst a fifth wave of COVID-19 pandemic, with the water shortage in the province putting at risk thousands of lives, according to observers.

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