TEHRAN, Iran – They have endured religious police, political repression and international isolation.
But a quota imposed on the purchase of subsidized gasoline sent Iranians to the streets Wednesday, where they torched at least 12 gas stations, damaged government-owned banks and department stores and shouted slogans against the president, Iranian news agencies and witnesses reported.
To limit rapidly increasing consumption of gasoline, the Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began enforcing a rationing program Wednesday that limits most motorists to 26.4 gallons a month at the subsidized price of 42 cents per gallon.
Although Iran possesses huge reserves of crude oil and natural gas, it lacks enough refineries, forcing this energy-hungry country to import more than $4 billion of refined petroleum a year. Last year, Ahmadinejad’s conservative government proposed a complicated gas-rationing system, but did not implement it on schedule this year amid public fury and technical problems. In March, it raised the price of the subsidized gas 25 percent.
But despite worries voiced by supreme leader Ali Khamenei and security officials, Ahmadinejad’s government revived the plan this week, putting it into effect with only two hours’ notice.
“We live on an ocean of oil,” said Kambiz Rahmati, 25, an electronics engineer working in a computer market in Tehran. “Why should we pay a high price for gasoline or suffer rationing?”
State-controlled television announced the plan late Tuesday night, sending masses of people into the streets. Motorists honking their horns in protest rushed to fill up in the hours before the plan went into effect. Crowds gathered, and as the clock struck midnight, melees erupted. Angry mobs in the capital set gas stations afire. A spokesman for the fire department told the daily World of Industry newspaper that 21 gas stations were torched. Others said at least a dozen were burned.
Witnesses said demonstrators chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad. Scuffles broke out between pro-government basiji militiamen and the protesters.
Rioters smashed windows of stores and government banks.
Government officials branded the demonstrators “hooligans,” and said about 80 had been arrested.
Some experts speculated that the rioting was organized by leaders of smuggling rings that sell subsidized fuel to other Persian Gulf countries for huge profits. Others attributed the unrest to broader frustrations with Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and the effects of economic sanctions.
Under the rationing scheme, Iranians will be able to buy fuel above the quota, but at much higher prices that will be announced later in the year, officials said.