President defends steep fuel price rise as the United States condemns ‘lethal force’ used against Iranian demonstrators.
Protests erupted across Iran in recent days after an abrupt decision by authorities to hike petrol prices as part of efforts to blunt the effects of crippling US sanctions on the country’s economy.
The move, announced at midnight on November 15, saw the rollout of a rationing scheme and the slashing of subsidies, sending prices soaring by at least 50 percent.
The changes are aimed at raising funds for cash handouts to Iran’s poorest citizens, but many Iranians already grappling with rising inflation were quick to protest against the new policy.
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The plan was agreed by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, which is made up of President Hassan Rouhani, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani.
The body decided that vehicles for private use would be restricted to 60 litres (16gal) of fuel monthly, while the price of petrol would jump 50 percent to 15,000 Iranian rials ($0.13 at open market rates) per litre. Any fuel purchases in excess of allotted rations will incur an additional charge of 30,000 rials ($0.26) per litre.
Despite the move, petrol remains cheaper in Iran – home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves – than almost anywhere else in the world. But while a price hike was somewhat expected, many on social media pointed out that average incomes are too low to comfortably absorb the steep hike.
The move sparked demonstrations in cities and towns across Iran, with drivers abandoning vehicles on highways and protesters blocking roads. Dozens of banks and stores have been set on fire or damaged.
Tens of thousands of people have taken part in the protests, prompting a pushback from Iranian security forces and authorities to implement a “near total internet shutdown”, according to monitoring service NetBlocks.
Update: It has been 75 hours since #Iran introduced a near-total internet shutdown leaving Iranians isolated from the rest of the world 📉
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) November 19, 2019
At least 11 people – five security forces and six civilians – have been killed in the unrest, according to figures collated by Al Jazeera.
Iranian media reported on Monday that three members of the security forces were stabbed to death by “rioters” near the capital, Tehran, but authorities are yet to announce an official death toll.
Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday said at least 106 people had been killed in violence surrounding the demonstrations and accused authorities of presiding over a “brutal and deadly crackdown”.
The United Nations has called for Iranian authorities to rein in the use of force to disperse the protests and uphold the demonstrators’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Though ostensibly driven by the petrol measures, the unrest seems to also be driven by widespread dismay over the ailing state of Iran’s economy, in which jobs are increasingly scarce and savings are evaporating amid inflation of more than 40 percent.
Following US President Donald Trump’s decision last year to unilaterally exit a landmark 2015 nuclear accord brokered between Iran and several other world powers – a deal which saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief – Washington has imposed a punishing array of financial measures on the country.
According to the IMF, Iran’s economy is already in “severe distress” and set to contract by 9.5 percent this year as it struggles under the weight of the sanctions.
The downturn has also seen Iran’s currency – the rial – plunge to record lows against the dollar.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed the move, saying it was based on expert opinion and should be supported.
Khamenei labelled protesters taking violent action as “thugs” and accused counter-revolutionaries and foreign enemies of fuelling the unrest. He ordered security forces to “implement their tasks”.
For his part, Rouhani said families would start receiving financial assistance on Monday from the funds raised but also warned “anarchy and rioting” will not be tolerated.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned of “decisive” action if the demonstrations do not cease.
In recent years, protests against the state of the economy have been met with a heavy-handed reaction by security forces.