DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Protests struck several Iranian cities early Saturday over the government cutting back on gasoline subsidies and increasing costs by 50%, demonstrations ranging from people abandoning their cars in traffic to trying to attack an oil depot in one city.
The demonstrations, though not as widespread as the economic protests that roiled the country nearly two years ago, put new pressure on the government of Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
As parliamentary elections loom in February, Rouhani has been trying to pitch Iran on the idea of staying in his landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The accord is unraveling after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from it over a year ago, raising tensions across the wider Mideast.
In Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city and the home of a famous Shiite shrine, dozens of demonstrators abandoned their cars in traffic to protest, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. The protest ended when police warned demonstrators to disperse, IRNA said.
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.
Violence broke out in Sirjan, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Tehran. IRNA said “protesters tried to set fire to the oil depot, but they were stopped by police.” It did not elaborate, but online videos circulating Iran purported to show fire at the depot as sirens wailed in the background. Another showed a large crowd shouting: “Rouhani, shame on you! Leave the country alone!”
In Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, online videos purported to show police firing tear gas on crowds.
It wasn’t immediately clear if police made arrests or if anyone had been injured in the demonstrations. Iranian state television aired a segment Friday night trying to dispute the claims of opposition satellite news channels about the protests, calling their videos of demonstrations “fake news” in English. Iranian internet access meanwhile saw disruptions and outages Friday night into Saturday morning, suggesting “a response to limit attendance and media coverage of the protests,” according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access.
Iran announced the cuts to gasoline subsidies at midnight Friday without any prior warning. It came after months of speculation over possible rationing. Iranian officials say the proceeds from Friday’s price hikes are earmarked to fund subsidies for low-income families.
Gasoline prices jumped to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter of gas — 50% up from the day before. That’s 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.60 by comparison.
Iranian authorities have allocated a limit of 60 liters per month for every private car at about 13 cents per liter, and beyond that quota, the price jumps to 26 cents per liter, according to Iranian state media.
Previously, drivers were allowed up to 250 liters at 8 cents per liter, or 10,000 rials.
Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest reserves of crude oil. Iranians long have felt subsidized gasoline was one of the only benefits it saw from its reserves. A similar push to limit subsidies saw protests in 2007.
“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%,” said Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. “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.”
Iran long has suffered economic problems since its 1979 Islamic Revolution cut off its decades-long relationship with the U.S. Its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s followed, further straining its economy.
The collapse of the nuclear deal has exacerbated those problems. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to $1 at the time of the accord, now trades at over 118,000 to $1. Iran saw nationwide protests in late 2017 that extended into 2018 over its worsening economic situation, which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed.
As in the 2017 protests, those now initially appear leaderless as well. They also come as major protests continue in Iraq and Lebanon, two Mideast nations home to Iranian proxies and crucial to Tehran’s influence abroad.