People block a road in the central Iranian city of Isfahan to protest a hike in gasoline prices. (AFP via Getty Images)

Iran Sees Third Day of Unrest over Gasoline Price Hike

Supreme leader backs decision on 50% increase, blames nationwide protests on country’s enemies

Angry protests continued across Iran for the third straight day Sunday after the government unexpectedly cut gasoline subsidies on Friday, leading to a price increase of 50 percent.

At least one person has been killed and dozens wounded in clashes with security forces. According to the semi-official Fars news agency, 2,000 people have been arrested in some 100 cities and towns.

The unrest highlights the predicament of the Iranian government and exposes its inability to deal with crippling US sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani recently admitted that the country faced a deficit amounting to nearly two-thirds of its annual $45-billion budget.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, told The Media Line that the protests were directly related to the sanctions.

“They are linked to the sanctions because the sanctions caused the devaluation of the Iranian rial [and] the devaluation of the rial made gasoline even cheaper than it was because it’s pegged to the rial,” he said, explaining that this led to widespread smuggling of cheap fuel out of the country.

The price of regular gasoline was raised to 15,000 rials ($0.13) a liter, from 10,000 rials, and rationed. Additional purchases beyond the ration level now cost 30,000 rials per liter.

Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based Middle East analyst, told The Media Line that the protests show Tehran is economically in desperation mode.

“The regime apparently is in urgent need of money to finance the government, state institutions [and] regional proxies,” he said. “There is no other sensible explanation but to say that the regime has failed big.”

Bakeer argues that similar unrest in the region may have played a role in the protests.

“We should not ignore [the possibility] that protests in Iraq and Lebanon encouraged Iranians to take their anger against the regime to the streets,” he stated.

The government claims its decision to cut subsidies was intended to free funds for programs intended to help the poor. Rouhani said there were about 60 million needy Iranians who would benefit, insisting that the government itself would not.

Marandi agrees, although with a caveat.

“The government will be returning money from the increased price of gasoline to 70 percent of the population,” he said. “But still, people are concerned, especially about inflation.”

While the protests began as an outcry against gasoline prices, they quickly morphed into demonstrations against the government’s economic policies, with accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

In a speech aired on state television on Sunday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apparently felt compelled to endorse the price hike while blaming opponents of the Islamic Republic for “sabotage.”

Marandi echoed the Iranian leader’s allegation, accusing international media outlets in particular.

“Persian-language media channels such as the BBC, which is state-owned, and other Persian-language TV channels [and] media outlets based in the West are trying very hard to create unrest and intensify the unrest in the country,” he charged. “It’s very ugly the way in which these Western-backed media behave.”

But not everyone is buying into that theory, with Bakeer blaming the regime, insisting that the reasons for the protests were homegrown.

“These protests… come against the backdrop of an unprecedentedly deteriorating economic situation and living standards, which in turn are the result of the regime’s systematic, corrupt internal policies and expansive regional agenda,” he said. “Their triggers are genuinely internal.”

Khamenei said the price hikes had been recommended by experts and should be supported.

“I am not an expert and there are different opinions, but I said that if the heads of the three branches make a decision, I will support it,” the supreme leader was quoted as saying.

The price hike was agreed to by the High Council of Economic Coordination, which consists of the president, speaker of parliament and head of the judiciary.

Netblocks, an internet-monitoring website, said that in an apparent attempt to quell the unrest, internet access in Iran had been curtailed. The Media Line was able to communicate with people in Tehran on Sunday only via phone and messaging applications.

Marandi says that once people start seeing the financial return, things will become quiet once more.

“Ultimately, the protests will die down, especially after the money begins to go into people’s bank accounts,” he said.

Bakeer says it will all hinge on how the government and its powerful security arms respond to the demonstrators.

“There is always a possibility that these protests will turn into a national fireball,” he said, “depending on how the Iranian regime deals with them.”

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