A sharp spike in fuel prices has ignited days of anti-government protests across Iran, leaving at least one person dead and potentially plunging the country into a new political crisis.
Thousands of demonstrators defied freezing temperatures to take to the streets of the capital Tehran and other towns and cites including Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz. Despite a late autumn snow storm, protesters blocked roads, burnt tyres, attacked police kiosks, torched banks, buses and petrols stations, and confronted riot police.
In one widespread gesture of defiance, drivers in numerous cities simply abandoned their vehicles, leading to major traffic jams.
Security forces have responded with characteristic harshness, shooting teargas and possibly live fire to disperse crowds amid dire warnings by top government authorities.
“Right now in Karaj they are attacking the people,” a man said in one video posted online, which could not be independently verified but was consistent with other accounts of unrest in the city, a major industrial hub outside Tehran.
“Come on! Let’s go help them!” said another, while a small crowd of onlookers shouted “shameless” at security forces.
The interior ministry said at least 40 people had been arrested following the first major public challenge to the regime since protests in rural provinces against economic hardship petered out more than a year ago. At least one person was killed in protests in Sirjan, a small city in southern Iran.
Underscoring the scale of the crisis, authorities shut off or severely throttled internet access across the country in an attempt to prevent coordination of the protests and distribution of videos. Traders closed shops in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar on Sunday, the second day of the Iranian working week, as police swarmed the labyrinth of alleyways and passages.
The latest wave of unrest broke after the government of president Hassan Rouhani, struggling to balance the budget despite harsh US sanctions that have choked off oil revenues that are the mainstay of the economy, announced late on Thursday there would be a sharp rise in the price of petroleum, which is heavily subsidised by the Iranian state.
Under the plan, each driver is to be allowed to purchase 60 litres of fuel at 15,000 rials (35p), an increase of 50 per cent, and then pay 30,000 rials (70p) for every additional litre. The plan is said to shave the equivalent of £5.6bn from the Iranian budget. To alleviate the economic pain, Iran would make monthly payments to lower-income families.
Although the new prices remain well below global market prices, Iranians have come to expect cheap fuel as a birth right. And while the move has been recommended for years by economists, environmentalists and the World Bank, it has come at a time when many Iranians are struggling financially.
The protests will likely hearten well-financed, ideologically-motivated Washington anti-Iran lobbyists who have pushed Donald Trump’s administration to adopt a policy of “maximum pressure” to topple the Tehran regime or bring it to its knees.
But fiery protests also erupted in 2007 when Iran raised petroleum prices and imposed limits on the consumption of cheap fuel, and eventually petered out. Many of those leading the demonstrations were bands of smugglers who bought and sold subsidised fuel on the black market.
It is also likely hardline elements within the regime are encouraging or allowing the protests to weaken the relatively moderate faction of Mr Rouhani ahead of 2021 presidential elections. Some right-wing politicians have already criticised the government for the move, which was coordinated with parliament and the judiciary.
Figures close to the Revolutionary Guard, a parallel branch of the armed forces that lords over Iran’s economy and politics, have remained mostly quiet during two days of protests. Numerous top clerics and others have urged Mr Rouhani to cancel the price hikes, though the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed approval.
In addition, online footage showed crowd sizes that Iranian authorities have in the past been able to manage. Top officials hinted at an impending crackdown by shadowy pro-government militiamen who act with relative impunity, while Mr Khamenei blamed foreign “thugs” for the violence.
“Insecurity is the biggest disaster for any country, for any society,” he said in a speech on Saturday. “All the world’s centres of thuggery against us have encouraged these things. I am saying here, no one must help such thugs.”
Ali Shamkhani, national security chief, reportedly told MPs the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an exiled militant cult based in Albania, was behind the protests.
“These acts of sabotage are a crime by law, and the police and the judiciary deem it their duty to deal with saboteurs and those who damage public property,” prosecutor-general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri told state media.
Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security issued a statement warning that the “main actors of the riots of the past two days have been identified and appropriate measures are being taken in their regard”.
Analysts say Iranian authorities hope to use a combination of fear, surveillance and mostly non-lethal street force to shrink crowd sizes until the demonstrations peter out, as they have in the past, including during the late 2017 protests in the provinces.
“Islamic Republic of Iran knows exactly how to quell unrest,” said one analyst and media watcher, who asked not to be named. “I don’t think what’s happening is any bigger than the December 2017/January 2018 protests. The movement, if you can call it that, has no leader and will eventually die down, just like the protests two years ago.”
But Iranian regime hardliners have during recent months of economic pressure stepped up their hostility towards dissidents, unleashing a wave of arrests targeting civil society activists and ethnic and religious minorities.
“Two big nationwide protests in as many years suggest that people’s tolerance is wearing thin,” said the analyst.
One Iranian with close ties to the protesters told The Independent Iranians are genuinely frightened for their economic well-being. He said: “People are pissed off and scared to death of another wave of inflation which will inevitably happen after rising fuel prices.
“There is no way the poor can handle another wave of massive inflation. They are already living on a blade’s edge and this will push them forward. Tons of people are scared they will not be able to afford basics anymore.”
Recent visitors to Iran say anger among Iranians at the Tehran establishment has reached fever pitch during a period of global unrest against elites across the Middle East, with protests against powerful ruling cliques in neighbouring Iraq, as well as in Lebanon. Both are Shia-dominated countries with political and religious ties to Tehran.
“People are furious as well,” said the Iranian. “There is the general hate towards the regime and people who would use every opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and express their general dissatisfaction but this is mostly economic for the moment.”
Iranian officials seemed keenly aware of the protests against governments erupting throughout the region, part of a wave of anger towards elites that seems to extend across the world.
“Domestic and foreign opportunists have made another strategic mistake. Iran is neither Iraq nor Lebanon,” Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Rouhani, tweeted. “The US embassy was closed many years ago. We Iranians will not let mercenary media outlets dictate what we should do.”