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Iran petrol protests intensify

What happened: At least three people have been killed in nationwide protests in Iran following Thursday’s announcement by Iran’s National Oil Company (NIOPDC) of at least a 50 per cent increase in petrol prices. The price of petroleum is heavily subsidised by the state.

  • Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that “several” people have died in the protests. Iranian authorities on Sunday said the official death toll in the violence was three, but other sources have suggested it could be much higher. An estimated 87,000 people have taken part in the protests, and more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. More than 40 demonstrators were arrested in the city of Yazd who security forces accused of “sabotage,” the Mehr news agency reported. In Esfehan, 15 petrol stations were stormed and set on fire whilst dozens of banks and stores were damaged throughout the country.
  • State-run Press TV reports that Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazil said security forces will act against protestors if the “vandalism” continues.
  • Over the weekend the Iranian authorities shut down the internet and jammed cell phones. According to researchers at Netblocks, a group that tracks global connectivity, the first noticeable drops in connectivity in Tehran and other cities occurred on Friday afternoon, soon after the hashtag #300% appeared. That was followed by a near-total internet shutdown. Iran has instituted partial or full internet blocks many times in the past, but rarely on this scale.
  • The White House said: “The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them. We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators. Tehran has fanatically pursued nuclear weapons and missile programmes, and supported terrorism, turning a proud nation into another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches.”

Context: Earlier this month Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced the discovery of a vast oil field containing an estimated 53 billion barrels of crude oil, which would make it Iran’s second-largest oil field.

  • The price of petrol has increased from approximately 18p to 35p a litre. Under the new government scheme, 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 will save £5.6bn from the Iranian budget which currently allocates $69bn a year to energy subsidies.
  • The Iranian economy has suffered under US-imposed sanctions that have been in place since 2018. Inflation is reportedly at 40 per cent and the economy is expected to contract by 9 per cent this year according to IMF estimates.
  • In 2007 nationwide protests broke out in Iran when the government raised petrol prices and imposed limits on the consumption of cheap fuel. Many of those leading the demonstrations were smugglers who bought and sold subsidised fuel on the black market.

Looking ahead: The Iranian leadership will likely use a combination of fear, surveillance and force to try and shrink crowd sizes until the demonstrations peter out, as they have in the past, including during the 2017 protests in the provinces. However, Iranians have come to expect heavily subsidised fuel as part of the social contract between citizen and the state and the lower-classes fear more years of economic hardship. It has also been suggested that hard-line elements within the regime are encouraging or facilitating the protests to weaken President Rouhani ahead of the next presidential election in 2021.