TEHRAN: One person was killed and others injured in protests that spread across Iran on Saturday after a surprise decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing in the country hit by US sanctions.
The death occurred in the central city of Sirjan, where people tried to set fire to a fuel depot but were thwarted by security forces, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.
It came as the demonstrations broke out Friday, hours after it was announced the price of petrol would be hiked by 50% for the first 60 litres and 300% for anything above that each month.
“Unfortunately someone was killed,” Sirjan’s acting governor Mohammad Mahmoudabadi said, adding the cause of the death and whether “the individual was shot or not” was still unclear.
“Security forces did not have permission to shoot and were only allowed to fire warning shots… which they did,” ISNA quoted him as saying.
It was a “calm gathering” exploited by some who “destroyed public property, damaged fuel stations and also wanted to access the oil company’s main fuel depots and set fire to them,” he added.
Besides Sirjan, “scattered” protests were also held Friday in other cities including Abadan, Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Birjand, Gachsaran, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Mashhad and Shiraz, state news agency IRNA said.
Some “rioters” in Ahvaz set fire to a bank and in Khoramshahr “suspicious and unknown armed individuals” fired at people and injured a few, state television’s website said.
In other cities, protests were mostly limited to blocking traffic and were over by midnight, it added.
Police fired tear gas at protesters in some cities, state television said, without specifying when.
It accused “hostile media” of trying to use fake news and videos on social media to exaggerate protests as “large and extensive”.
Prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said the people would part ways with “the few disruptors” whose actions show they are against the system.
Drivers block streets
Fresh demonstrations were held Saturday in the cities of Doroud, Garmsar, Gorgan, Ilam, Karaj, Khoramabad, Mehdishahr, Qazvin, Qom, Sanandaj, Shahroud and Shiraz, IRNA said.
“Some drivers have protested the new petrol price by turning off their cars and creating traffic jams,” it added.
Iran imposed petrol rationing and raised pump prices by at least 50% from Friday, saying the move was aimed at helping citizens in need with cash handouts.
The measure was expected to generate 300 trillion rials (US$2.55 billion) per annum, the authorities said.
About 60 million Iranians in need would get payments ranging from 550,000 rials (US$4.68) for couples to slightly more than two million rials (US$17.46) for families of five or more.
Under the scheme, drivers with fuel cards would pay 15,000 rials (13 US cents) a litre for the first 60 litres of petrol bought each month, with each additional litre costing 30,000 rials.
Fuel cards were first introduced in 2007 with a view to reforming the subsidies system and curbing large-scale smuggling.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.
The rial has plummeted, inflation is running at more than 40% and the International Monetary Fund expects Iran’s economy to contract by nine percent this year and stagnate in 2020.
President Hassan Rouhani said 75% of Iranians were “under pressure” and the extra petrol revenues would go to them, and not the treasury.
Rouhani had tried to hike fuel prices in December but was blocked by parliament after protests that rocked Iran for days.
The speaker at the time ruled out the move as unpopular and said it was “not in the interests of the country”.
The scheme comes at a sensitive time as Iran prepares for a February parliamentary election.
Nobakht said the price hike was agreed by the High Council of Economic Coordination, made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief, implying it had received approval across the board.
The council met again Saturday, and according to the government’s official website, urged the “cooperation of all branches to successfully implement the plan”.
Rouhani in his first term had voiced opposition to the petrol dual-price regime adopted by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying “it caused corruption and that is why we made a unified rate” in a 2015 tweet.
His administration also scrapped Ahmadinejad’s fuel card scheme, only to revive it this year while still denying rumours it was a precursor to rationing and price hikes.