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Iran leader Khamenei backs gasoline price hike that led to deadly unrest

AFP-JIJI

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Sunday threw his support behind a decision to hike gasoline prices, a move that sparked nationwide unrest in which he said “some lost their lives.”

Khamenei blamed “hooligans” for damaging property and said “all the centers of the world’s wickedness against us have cheered” the street protests.

A policeman was killed in the western city of Kermanhshah in a clash with armed “rioters,” the second confirmed death since protests erupted across Iran on Friday.

Several people were also wounded and dozens arrested in two days of demonstrations that saw motorists block highways and others attack and set fire to public property.

In a speech aired on state television, Khamenei said “some lost their lives and some centers were damaged.”

The protests flared hours after it was announced that the price of gasoline would be raised by 50 percent for the first 60 liters (16 gallons) and by 300 percent for anything above that each month.

It is a rise many consumers can ill afford, given that Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The rial has plummeted, inflation is running at more than 40 percent and the International Monetary Fund expects Iran’s economy to contract by 9.5 percent this year and stagnate in 2020.

The gasoline pricing plan was agreed by the High Council of Economic Coordination made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief.

Khamenei said that “I am not an expert and there are different opinions but I had said that if the heads of the three branches make a decision I will support it.

“The heads of the branches made a decision with the backing of expert opinion and naturally it must be implemented,” he said.

“Some people would definitely get upset over this decision … but damaging and setting fire (to property) is not something (normal) people would do. It is hooligans.”

Following his speech, the Majlis, or parliament, canceled a motion to reverse the price hike, semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

Khamenei also pointed at opponents abroad in what he called “the centers of the world’s wickedness.”

These included the Pahlavi royal family ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) group, which Iran considers a “terrorist” cult.

“What I am asking is that no one help these criminals,” Khamenei said, calling on people to distance themselves from those stoking the protests.

Some of the worst violence was in the central city of Sirjan, where acting Gov. Mohammad Mahmoudabadi said a civilian was killed and fuel stations were among the public property attacked and damaged.

In Kermanshah, a policeman died Sunday, a day after a “confrontation with a number of rioters and thugs,” the provincial police chief told IRNA.

In Tehran on Saturday, protesters were seen shouting slogans and burning tires on a street.

Similar scenes were witnessed in the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan and Bushehr, where security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at demonstrators.

Forty “disruptors” were arrested in the central city of Yazd after clashing with police, the province’s public prosecutor told ISNA on Sunday. Most were not locals, he added.

Police said security forces will “not hesitate to confront those disrupting peace and security and will identify the ringleaders and field forces and confront them.”

The Intelligence Ministry said those behind the unrest “have been identified” and that measures will be taken against them, according to ISNA.