Smoke rises during a protest after authorities raised fuel prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.
Smoke rises during a protest after authorities raised fuel prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.

CAIRO - Iranian protesters are on the streets in dozens of towns and cities across the country as anger spreads following a government decision to double the price of fuel. The protests appear to have gained momentum after the top Shi'ite cleric in neighboring Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, sided with protesters in a Friday prayer sermon delivered by one of his followers.

However, on Sunday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came out in support of the government’s decision to increase gasoline prices by 50% and called those setting fire to public property “bandits” backed by the enemies of Iran.

The report by the country’s state television quoted Khamenei as saying that those violent protesters were supported by counterrevolutionaries and Iran’s enemies abroad. He also acknowledged some were upset about the higher prices.

He urged security forces to “implement their tasks,” without elaborating.

Khamenei’s comments suggest authorities may be preparing to quash the demonstrations that began Friday and quickly spiraled out across the country.

Protests across the country

On Saturday, dozens of protesters in the capital of Iran's Azerbaijan province, Tabriz, clashed with government security forces, pelting them with stones on a major highway through the city. Amateur video showed traffic stopped as police charged protesters in an attempt to chase them off the roadway.

Protesters also blocked traffic using cars and buses in the capital, Tehran, amid an unseasonal snow storm. Other video showed demonstrators chanting slogans in front of a pro-government militia office in Tehran.

Protests were reported Saturday in dozens of Iranian towns and cities for the second straight day, following a government decision to raise fuel prices. A number of people reportedly were killed or wounded, but reports were conflicting over the exact casualty count. Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that 9 protesters were killed Saturday.

Amateur video showed protesters in the region of Karaj chasing police after officers shot and reportedly killed two unarmed demonstrators. VOA could not confirm the deaths.

Arab media also reported that Iran closed a major border crossing with neighboring Iraq as demonstrations there continued unabated. Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, came out in support of protesters against government corruption during a Friday prayer sermon delivered by one of his followers.

Cars block a street during a protest against a rise in gasoline prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.
Cars block a street during a protest against a rise in gasoline prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, Nov. 16, 2019.

Former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani Sadr told VOA there are many Iranians who follow Ayatollah Sistani and that his message of support for the Iraqi people undoubtedly is reverberating in Iran as well.

Bani Sadr said that Ayatollah Sistani came out in favor of the people as the source of legitimacy of the government. That is a direct rebuke against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the principle of the Vilayet-al-Faqih. which requires that the country be ruled by an enlightened religious figure.

Bani Sadr also stressed that the economic situation in Iran is "extremely serious," and that the country has a massive budget deficit of more than $5 billion. The decision to raise fuel prices, he insisted, was made directly by Ayatollah Khamenei, and not the Iranian parliament, inciting anger against him.

Amateur video showed protesters setting fire to billboards showing the picture of Ayatollah Khamenei in the town of Islamshahr, near the capital, Tehran.

Amateur video also showed protesters setting fire to a branch of the Iranian central bank in the town of Behbahan. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Protesters also chanted against Iran's military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian territories in several towns and cities. Protesters in Islamshahr chanted "no money, no gas, screw Palestine."