Sporadic protests have broken out in a number of Iranian cities after authorities announced a surprise decision to ration and increase the price of petrol as part of efforts to offset the effect of crippling US sanctions.
The demonstrations on Friday night were “severe” in Iran’s central city of Sirjan as “people attacked a fuel storage warehouse in the city and tried to set fire to it”, state news agency IRNA reported, adding that police intervened to stop them.
IRNA said “scattered” protests also broke out in other cities including Abadan, Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Birjand, Gachsaran, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Mashhad and Shiraz. According to the semi-official news agency, protests were mostly limited to blocking traffic and were reportedly over by midnight.
On Saturday morning, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from the capital, Tehran said there were “sporadic gatherings across the country in various different cities” following the overnight protests.
“People are still very much angry, saying this is absolutely unacceptable given the current economic status of the country,” she said.
‘Shocked and stunned’
After months of speculation, authorities announced in the early hours of Friday that petrol will now be rationed across the country using smart fuel cards.
Vehicles for private use are to be restricted to 60 litres (16gal) of fuel monthly, while the price of petrol will 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.
The moves prompted fears of households facing further economic pressure in a country whose economy is forecast to shrink by 9.5 percent this year. Iranians, especially those getting by on low- and middle-income wages – have already taken a massive hit due to a currency crisis and an inflationary wave that formed on the back of US sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump last year unilaterally withdrew Washington from a landmark nuclear deal signed between world powers and Iran in 2015.
“Iranians woke up to this news and were shocked and stunned,” Jabbari said.
“Without any warning, the prices went up drastically and many here say that this is not something they can really deal with because it will have ramifications in other aspects of their daily life, meaning that the price of bread, eggs and other goods will also rise because of this.”
Protests require prior approval from Iran’s interior ministry, though authorities routinely allow small-scale demonstrations over economic issues, especially as the country has struggled with currency devaluation.
The demonstrations, though not as widespread as the economic protests that shook the country nearly two years ago, put new pressure on the government of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani ahead of parliamentary elections in February.
Iranian officials say the proceeds from the initiative will not go to government coffers but will be used instead to fund subsidies for low-income families.
Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, head of the Plan and Budget Organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran, announced that the revenues from the initiative will be distributed among 18 million households – about 60 million people – in the form of monthly cash handouts.
A family of five or more will receive 2.05 million rials (around $18). This is separate from the 445,000 rials ($3.90) that each household member is eligible to receive under Iran’s long-running monthly state cash subsidies plan.
“As in many countries, tinkering with the price of gas is politically explosive. After massive protests, the Hassan Rouhani administration was forced to back down from a 2017 plan to increase prices by 50 percent,” Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, told The Associated Press news agency.
“The government was clearly attuned to this risk: The latest announcement was made in the middle of the night before a weekend, it took effect immediately, and it was announced without direct consultation with lawmakers.”