Iran is again convulsed by protests. The lifting of fuel subsidies and the cutting of rations have sparked demonstrations across the country, resulting, says the human rights group Amnesty International, in the deaths of more 100 people. Accurate information is difficult to come by since the Tehran government has shut down the internet within the country. The unrest will likely intensify the standoff between Iran and Western critics, especially the United States.
Earlier this month, Tehran announced that it would cut subsidies for fuel, a move that would effectively raise the price of gasoline by 50 percent. The decree also substantially lowered — from 250 liters to 60 liters — the amount of gas that could be bought at the subsidized price; after that amount is purchased, the charge per liter doubles. For those purchases, the price of gas has effectively tripled.
Iran, possessor of the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, has kept the price of fuel artificially low, but that policy makes little economic sense. It is far more useful for the government to provide cash directly to the country’s neediest citizens so they can use the money as they see fit. And that is what the government intends to do. President Hassan Rouhani said the government will pass the new revenue on to 60 million needy Iranians in the form of cash subsidies. “The government’s goal … is to help the middle class and lower-income households,” he said.
Despite its logic, the decision itself was mishandled, announced unexpectedly on a Friday just before a weekend. Protesters took to the streets across the country, angry at the move and distrusting the government’s promise to return the funds as cash handouts. The security forces responded with force, arresting at least 1,000 people and killing a number.
The government says five people have been killed, four of whom were security personnel. Citing video footage and credible witness testimony, Amnesty claims that death toll exceeds 100 but concedes that accurate information is hard to get since the government has shut down the internet. Soon after the unrest started, the government unplugged the country, hoping to isolate protesters from each other and the world beyond Iran’s borders. Connectivity to the outside world has fallen to just 4 percent of normal levels.
The government dismisses claims of brutality, insisting calm has been restored and that any violence was the work of foreign instigators and saboteurs. Human rights groups counter that the blackout has obscured a massive crackdown and the adoption of large-scale violence as an instrument of state policy.
The government should have anticipated this outcome. Iran’s economy has been suffering under the weight of international sanctions. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the economy will shrink by 9.5 percent this year because of sanctions. Inflation has robbed ordinary citizens of the wages that they receive and they have little faith in the government’s promise to help them out, especially after Rouhani admitted that the country’s debt had swelled to nearly two-thirds of the $45 billion budget.
Previous attempts to reduce subsidies triggered similar protests, most recently two years ago when some 5,000 people were detained and more than 25 people killed after the government tried to raise prices for other staple items. The violence abated after the government repealed the subsidy cuts. No similar reprieve can be expected this time as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has voiced support for the move.
The chief danger now is that the Iranian government will lash out to deter its adversaries, the U.S. in particular, from exploiting this perceived weakness. U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to intensify pressure on Tehran to force it to return to negotiations over its alleged nuclear weapons program. Instead, Iran has breached several restrictions of the landmark 2015 agreement it signed with the U.S. and other nations — from which Washington has already withdrawn — to get the other signatories to take steps to help Tehran. It has also attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf to force the rest of the world to intervene on its behalf.
Japan has sought to act as a bridge between the U.S. and Iran. During a visit to Tehran last summer and during a meeting with Rouhani in September at the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conveyed to the Iranian leadership Trump’s desire to make a deal. It is a slim reed, but the growing tensions in Iran demand that all opportunities for diplomacy be explored.