DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader yesterday backed the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices and called angry protesters who have been setting fire to public property over the hike “thugs”, signalling a potential crackdown on the demonstrations.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments came as authorities shut down the internet across Iran to smother the protests in some two dozen cities and towns over the rise of government-set prices by 50 per cent as of last Friday.
Since the hike, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major highways and joined mass protests in the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere. Some protests turned violent, with demonstrators setting fires and there was also gunfire.
It remains to be seen how many people have been injured, killed or arrested. Authorities said only one person was killed, though other videos from the protests have shown people gravely wounded.
In an address aired by state television yesterday, Khamenei said “some lost their lives and some places were destroyed”, without elaborating. He called violent protesters “thugs” who had been pushed into violence by counterrevolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran. He specifically named those aligned with the family of Iran’s late shah, ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by the people. This is what thugs do,” Khamenei said. However, he made a point to back the decision of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and others to raise gasoline prices.
Gasoline in the country still remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of IRR15,000 per litre of gas — 50 per cent up from the day before. That’s USD0.13 a litre, or about USD0.50 a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the United States (US) costs USD2.60 by comparison.
Khamenei ordered security forces “to implement their tasks” and for Iran’s citizens to keep clear of violent demonstrators.
That seemed to indicate a possible crackdown could be looming. Economic protests in late 2017 into 2018 were met by a heavy reaction by the police and the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
“Such illegal actions would not solve any problem but add insecurity on top of other problems,” Khamenei said.
“Lack of security is the biggest calamity for any country and society. That is what they are looking for.”
The protests have put renewed pressure on Iran’s government as it struggles to overcome US sanctions strangling the country’s economy since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.
Though largely peaceful, the latest demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos purporting to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires. While representing a political risk for Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, they also show widespread anger among Iran’s 80 million people who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves.
Rouhani had been pushing for higher prices to offer payments to the poor for months. While the hike was eventually expected, the decision to raise gasoline prices still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.
Iranian Internet access, meanwhile, saw disruptions and outages last Friday night into Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide Internet access. By Saturday night, “real-time network data show connectivity has fallen to just seven per cent of ordinary levels following 12 hours of progressive network disconnections as public protests have continued across the country,” NetBlocks said.
“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” the group said.
The semi-official ISNA news agency reported yesterday that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council ordered a “restriction of access” to the Internet nationwide, without elaborating.
Protester chants seen in online videos mirrored many from the economic protests in late 2017, which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people killed.