Protests in 100 cities in Iran turn violent after the government hiked gasoline prices. The protests swept the country like fire turning violent faster than widespread economic protests in 2017 and rallies over the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election.
The scale of the unrest that began on Friday remains unclear as authorities have shut down the internet across this nation of 80 million people.
Prior to that, online videos purported to show people abandoning their cars on major highways and marching on city centers. Demonstrations devolved into violence as rioters set fire to gas stations, attacked banks and robbed stores.
While sparked by President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to raise government-set gasoline prices, the protests take root in decades-old economic problems and mismanagement by the Iranian authoritarian regime.
PUTTING OUT FIRE WITH GASOLINE
For Iranians, cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright. Iran holds the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. As jobs remain scarce, many Iranians work as informal taxi drivers. But subsidizing prices both benefited Iran’s wealthy and spurred gasoline smuggling to neighboring countries.
The International Energy Agency estimates that Iran spent more than any other nation in the world to subsidize fossil-fuel costs in 2018 — $69 billion in total. Over $26 billion went toward oil subsidies, the IEA said.
Previous pushes to cut the subsidies sparked protests, so Rouhani’s government changed prices early Friday — at the start of the weekend in Iran — with no warning.
PROTESTS IN 100 CITIES IN IRAN TURN VIOLENT
It remains unclear how many people the regime arrested, injured or killed. Videos from the protests have shown people gravely wounded.
The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the country’s Revolutionary Guard, reported Sunday that demonstrators had ransacked some 100 banks and stores in the country. Authorities arrested some 1,000 people, Fars reported, citing unnamed security officials for the information.
Part of the reason it remains difficult to know what’s happening in Iran is because authorities have shut down access to the internet. Since late Saturday night, access went from worse to nonexistent across the nation. That stopped the spread of online videos of the demonstrations. I also affected the ability of protesters to share information.
The group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, said connectivity had fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels. It called Iran’s shutdown the most severe “in terms of its technical complexity and breadth”. The internet firm Oracle called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran”. Some local websites, like those of state media outlets, remains accessible, but Iran’s window to the outside world largely has closed. The Trump administration has criticized the shutdown.
It appears that Iran’s government is preparing to crackdown on the demonstrators. State television has begun airing segments focusing on violent attacks in the protests.
Ayatollah Khamenei made a point to refer to “thugs” in comments he made Sunday.
Online videos showed uniformed police officers trying to talk crowds into dispersing. Later, anti-riot police entered the streets. Plainclothes security forces, wielding bats and clubs, have been seen on the streets of Tehran. Videos also showed the motorcycle-riding members of the Basij, the all-volunteer arm of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Because of that, the U.S.-based private intelligence firm Stratfor notes Iran has developed tools like security force crackdowns and information control. “This makes it unlikely that the fuel protests will grow to the point of upending the Iranian political environment,” it said.
Unless the West weaponize the people of Iran to bring the regime to its knees.