On Saturday November 16, Iranians took to the streets in many cities across Iran to protest the steep increase in gas prices – and while the protests were mostly peaceful there was some clashes and even bloodshed in a handful of cases.
The protests took many forms and the slogans chanted were different from city to city and even from street to street. In one place, people blocked the street, sat on the pavement and, as in the recent Lebanon protests, smoked water pipes and drank tea. Elsewhere protesters stopped their cars in the middle of traffic and peacefully occupied the street. And in other places they chanted slogans against inflation or against the government. Demonstrations continued all day without serious clashes or bloodshed in most cities; but in a few places, police opened fire and killed or injured several protesters.
It was midnight on Friday, November 15 when official news agencies announced that, according to a decision made by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, consisting of the heads of the three branches of government, the price of un-rationed gas in Iran will rise threefold to 3,000 tomans.
Following the news, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, head of Iran’s Planning and Budget Organization, announced that revenues from rationing and the gas price increase on the open market – would be distributed as financial aid to more than 18 million households, or 60 million people. According to him, the level of aid offered would be between 50 to 205 thousand tomans ($5 to $25) per month, depending on the size of the household. But many economic observers say that, considering the inflationary effects of such a steep gas price increase, this aid will not be of much help to low-income families.
It is unclear whether the government and the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination had predicted the protests – but once they began on the Friday afternoon they spread rapidly across the country. Videos of the protests circulating on social media also indicate that protests in many cases soon went beyond the price hike; Iranians also began to protest against the government itself, as well as the Supreme Leader.
Some videos show car tires set alight or sporadic clashes between protesters and the police. The most significant unrest on Friday was in Khuzestan, an oil-rich province, which also has a high poverty rate. Ahvaz, Mahshahr, Dezful, Omidiyeh, Behbahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Sirjan were among cities that saw protests on Friday.
“Turn off your cars, honorable Ahvazi,” demonstrators chanted in Ahvaz. In Omidiyeh, protesters shut down the road leading out of town for several hours. In Mahshahr, angry protesters set a gas station on fire. And in Sirjan, Kerman province, police opened fired on demonstrators and killed a protester named Javad Nazari Fath-Abadi.
The protests spread more widely still on Saturday. In some cities, people refrained from chanting radical political slogans and protested only the gas price increase. To show their discontent, they turned off their cars, left them in the middle of the street and created traffic jams. In Isfahan, protesters added an entertaining twist; pictures of one street protest there show parked cars blocking the street as people drank tea and smoked water pipes. But a later picture from Isfahan’s Zeinabieh neighborhood shows a body on the ground, covered with blood, and the voiceover in the video tells us that this person was killed by the police.
Protesters in places such as Shiraz also focused on the gas price hike. They blocked the streets with cars – and at first no clashes between protesters and police were reported. Instead, people smiled at the police and thanked them.
But in the afternoon the situation in Shiraz changed, turning violent when a young protester named Mehdi Nekooee was shot and killed in front of the police station in Moali-Abad Boulevard. Later pictures from Shiraz showed protesters cutting CCTV wires in the streets, tearing up pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and chanting slogans against the police and the government.
The clashes on Saturday were not limited to Isfahan and Shiraz. Protests continued in Khorramshahr and at least two people, Abdelwahab Adgipour and Ali Ghazlavi, a 12-year-old boy, were shot and killed by police and several people were injured. In Behbahan, protests continued from Friday and, according to unconfirmed reports, at least three protesters were killed. In Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, unrest continued throughout the day and it was reported that at least one person was killed and more than 20 were injured.
Videos from Shahriar, a city in Tehran province, show the police shooting directly at demonstrators. In response, angry protesters set fire to a building belonging to the paramilitary Basij Organization, a number of police stations and a sculpture of the ring worn by Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
More than 100 videos – from protests across Iran, posted on social media as the protests continued – show that in dozens of other cities, large like Tehran and small ones like Ilam, millions of people blocked the streets in protest. The protests started with chants against the gas price increases; but when they were confronted with police violence, and heard the news that protesters in other towns had been killed, their chants often became political. In some places they broke the windows of banks, police stations and government buildings; in a few cases, they also set fire to such places.
The violence was reportedly worse in two Kurdish towns – Javanrud in Kermanshah Province and Marivan in Kurdistan – and many more protesters were killed or injured. According to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, a Kurdish rights group, at least 12 people in these two cities were shot and killed and many others have been injured. Hengaw added that the number of casualties in these two cities is still increasing.
Iran’s domestic media, however, have reported Saturday protests differently from people on social media. Some have mentioned the unrest but, according to a tweet by an Iranian journalist, state news agencies have been ordered to not cover the protests. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) published one report about protests in Sirjan without any mention of a protester who had been killed. IRNA only said that violent clashes had taken place and that the police had foiled attempts to set fire to the city’s fuel depot.
But the protests have forced some officials to respond. President Hasan Rouhani said that the revenue from increasing gas prices would be distributed among 60 million Iranians – rather than going into government coffers. Rouhani added that the government wanted to assist low-income Iranians but has previously lacked the resources and funds to do so.
Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, said that the Islamic Republic’s highest officials had all approved [Persian link] the gas price increase – but some of these officials deny they had any role in the decision. According to the news site Tabnak, the Expediency Council has issued a statement denying that its secretary has supported the decision, adding that decisions over the price of gas rests with the government and parliament.
According to some news published on social media, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi claimed that, in the meeting of the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, he had opposed the price increase; but Mohammad Farahani, editor-in-chief of the judiciary’s Mizan news agency, later denied this report.
Bahram Parsaei, member of parliament from Shiraz, claimed that parliament had not been consulted about the price increase. In a series of tweets, Parsaei wrote that gas prices in Iran will correspond to prices in other countries only when the income of Iranians is comparable to the incomes of people in those countries.
Among members of parliament, perhaps Parvaneh Salahshouri is one who has most unequivocally expressed her views on the gas price increase.
“Since gas prices went up, people have repeatedly called and said they are worried,” she tweeted [Persian link] on Saturday. “Dear fellow Iranians: parliament has not been in charge of affairs for a long time. This decision was made among the heads of the three branches of government. We had only this half-baked pillar of democracy but we kissed it goodbye and it is gone. Shut down the next parliament.”
Mojtaba Zolnoor, chairman of parliament’s National Security Committee, reported that enough members of parliament had agreed to introduce an emergency bill to a public session to oppose the increase in gas prices. He said that the decision to raise prices without parliament’s knowledge was against the law and would be opposed by parliament.
Saturday’s protests, however, went beyond mere criticism. In addition to the widespread road blockages, chants and sporadic violence, some protesters also denounced Iran’s aid to Palestinian and Lebanese paramilitary groups. These incidents led to threatening responses from Iranian officials. Iran’s Attorney-General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, and Rouhani’s advisor Hesamodin Ashna, claimed that foreigners have instigated the protests and threatened to take action against protesters.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli claimed that protesters had thus far been treated with “forbearance” – but threatened that if protests continued “naturally the police and security forces will do their duty.” Fazli's claim of “forbearance” coincided with reports that close to 20 protesters had been killed.
Threatening protesters was not the end of it. Around 6:00pm Tehran-time, on Saturday, an internet outage started and gradually spread across the country. In most parts of Iran, especially in the nearly 50 cities where protests took place, it was either impossible to connect to the internet or connections were repeatedly interrupted and dropped.
NetBlocks, a network monitoring civil society group, reported that “Iran’s largest mobile network operators including MCI, Rightel and IranCell … fell offline as of 6:00 pm (14:30 UTC) Saturday amid worsening internet shutdowns as the protests intensified.” It later reported that “Iran is in the midst of a near-total national internet shutdown as of 18:45 UTC, Saturday. Real-time network data show connectivity has fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels following twelve hours of progressive network disconnections as public protests have continued across the country.”
As of this report, access to the internet in Iran was next to impossible.
According to the latest reports, it was announced that schools in the provinces of Tehran, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, and in several cities including Isfahan, Shiraz and Behbahan, would be closed on Sunday. (Sunday is a workday in Iran.) Some Education Ministry officials have said that schools would be closed because of the cold and the snow but, except in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, it seem that the protests are the true reason for schools closing.