Fuel Price Hike Ignites Protests in Iran

Protests broke out in Iran on November 15, 2019, after the government unexpectedly announced a major increase in fuel prices at midnight on Friday. Protesters took to the streets in many cities across the country, switching off their cars on the streets and blocking the roads.

The government reinstated a rationing of subsidized fuel with a 50% price increase (from 10,000 Rials/litre to 15,000 Rials/litre), and a 200% increase for consumption above the subsidized ration (from 10,000 Rials/litre to 30,000 Rials/litre). The subsidized rations vary according to the vehicle type and function, for example 60 litres/month for private vehicles, 400 litres/month for taxis, 20 litres/ month for a motorcycle. The government claims that these price increases are not an attempt at introducing cuts to balance the state budget, but are aimed at increasing subsidies to the poorest in society. What they are really attempting is to introduce austerity by playing off the absolute poorest in society (who have been given promises of increase in their direct subsidies) against the rest of the population. Even if properly implemented, it is clear that however much the direct subsidies are increased for the poorest, they will be eaten up by inflation fast.

Immediately following the announcement on Friday, people of the south western city of Ahwaz took to the streets, with the slogan of "People of Ahwaz, switch off your cars to defend our dignity". Drivers have also blocked the two major roads, those from Ahwaz to Masjed Soleiman, and Behbahan to Aghajari and the port city of Mahshahr (smaller cities in the south west province of Khouzestan). These areas, are the main source of oil extraction in Iran. Yet, they have been ravaged by poverty and economic underdevelopment – in particular as a means of discrimination against the Arab population of the area.

Hundreds of people also took to the streets of Mashhad, the second largest city of Iran and traditionally a centre of conservatism. On the main street named Vakil Abad Boulevard, security police have been blocking protesters. Videos have been posted on social media, depicting protesters who appeal to the police for solidarity, chanting "Security police! Protect the people!" By the end of the day, there were reports on social media about at least one gas station set ablaze by the protesters in Sirjaan, and one protester shot dead in the same city.

While most official Iranian media outlets remained silent on Friday, Fars News Agency notably did not, although it avoided mentioning the slogans of protesters nor the roadblocks in Khuzestan. The agency is closely linked to the hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), which is the rival faction to the government of Rouhani. Today (Saturday, 16 November) however, the situation escalated. The protests spread to more than 30 cities, including the capital city of Tehran, and important cities of Shiraz, Esfahan and Tabriz. Videos shared on social media showed an intense confrontation between protesters and security forces, with at least one video showing a protester being shot at point blank range. While reports cannot be independently confirmed, with internet connections disrupted, at least half a dozen protesters have been reported dead in various cities, including Sirjaan, Behbahaan and Sanandaj.

These developments forced politicians and news websites in Iran to react to the spreading protests, although there was little mention of them on the official news media. Some rivals of the Rouhani government were quick to pay lip service to the justified discontent of the people and criticized the government over its handling of the situation, or the way the subsidy was announced. Few of these, however, have gone as far as calling for a delay in the price hikes, or calling for them to be withdrawn altogether.

The mass protests in 2018 were originally ignited by similar austerity measures. Those were temporarily cut across by the lack of leadership and organisation of the movement as well as attacks by Donald Trump on Iran. The Iranian ruling class used the reimposition of brutal sanctions and several threats of war to divert the attention of the masses against US imperialism. In the meantime, the sanctions and general economic decay have forced millions into deep poverty. Even layers who lived a relatively stable life, such as doctors, engineers, etc, have been pushed down into poverty. Meanwhile the poorest live in barbaric conditions with millions of workers, if they are lucky to have a job at all, not getting paid regularly.

But while the conditions of the masses have continued to deteriorate, the rich and powerful maintain their privileges. What is happening to the billions accumulated by regime tops in the foundations and endowments and in the revolutionary guards? Why is no one talking about taking from that wealth to redistribute to the poor? It is clear that on this question the ruling class in spite of its internal conflicts, stands united: the poor must be made to pay for this crisis! The dispute is merely over how to make them pay. Iran has a potentially strong economy with a powerful industrial base; but it has been allowed to rot away under the looting frenzy of the Mullahs and their friends. 

For decades, the clerical regime has appealed to the religious sentiments of the pious and conservative elements. It has leaned on its conflict with US imperialism to appear as a defender of Iranian people. But it is not having the same effect as before. The clerics are increasingly exposed for what they are, reactionary charlatans fighting only for their own narrow interests. The events in Iraq and Lebanon, which have seen Iranian backed groups opposing the democratic movement of the masses, will surely dent the image that the regime was painting of itself as being a defender of the poor and oppressed. 

Now, like their brethren in Iraq, Lebanon and across the world, the Iranian working masses are beginning to wake up showing that they are fed up with sustaining this rotten ruling class. What we are witnessing is a small glimpse of the enormous anger and frustration which lies underneath the surface of society, waiting for an outlet. What is necessary is to mobilise the masses for a socialist revolution. It is necessary to put the commanding heights of the economy under the ownership and democratic control of the working masses themselves as an urgent measure to solve their acute problems.The only way out of the impasse is to get rid of this sick ruling class altogether as it is unable to solve even the most basic problems of society.