Iran's abrupt decision to raise gasoline prices as its economy worsens under U.S. sanctions and domestic corruption has angered many Iranians, prompting protests in at least five cities and online complaints.
Without prior warning, the state-run National Iranian Oil Products Distribution Company announced an immediate 50% increase in the country's heavily subsidized gas price early Friday, raising the price from about 8 cents to 13 cents per liter. As part of a new rationing system, the state body also said each private car would be allowed up to 60 liters of gas per month at the new price, which would double to 26 cents a liter for any gas purchased above the quota.
Iranian state TV quoted Vice President Mohammad Bagher Nobakht as saying the higher gas price and new quota system were intended to raise funds for the government to provide cash handouts to about 60 million underprivileged people accounting for around three-quarters of the population. He said the payments would begin in the next week to 10 days.
But many Iranians were unconvinced, seeing the move instead as putting a further burden on their wallets at a time of worsening economic conditions. The International Monetary Fund has predicted the Iranian economy will shrink by 9 percent this year, as U.S. sanctions choke off oil exports that have been Iran's main revenue source, and endemic corruption hobbles Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's efforts to address the crisis.
"Many Iranians are upset and understandably so," said Jason Brodsky, policy director for U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, in a VOA Persian interview. "We've seen that the people can't win under the alleged pragmatic regime of Rouhani, just as they couldn't win under his [conservative] predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who instituted a similar fuel-rationing system in 2007 that only was discontinued in 2015."
Video clips verified by VOA Persian and sent from Iran showed angry drivers protesting on the streets of at least five cities on Friday: Ahvaz, Behbahan, Khorramshahr and Omidiyeh in the southwest, and Mashhad in the northeast of the country.
WATCH: Gas price protest in Ahvaz, Iran, Nov. 15, 2019
In one clip, protesters in Ahvaz chanted for drivers to shut down their cars and block the roads, while a man who filmed the video zooms in to a gas pumping machine showing the newly raised price.
Watch: Gas price protest in Behbahan, Iran, Nov. 15, 2019
In a video from Behbahan, demonstrators chanted: "Gas prices have increased and the poor have become poorer! Iranians will die, but will not accept humiliation!"
WATCH: Gas price protest in Mashhad, Iran, November 15, 2019
A third clip, sent from Mashhad, showed a street blocked by idle cars with people standing around. A narrator said drivers shut off the engines of cars and even a bus in anger at the gas price hike.
"This year, something is occurring that has never previously happened in Iran: the almost complete and absolute shutdown of oil exports that are their major source of foreign exchange earnings and foreign currency," Michael O'Hanlon, Brookings Institution foreign policy research director, said in another VOA Persian interview.
"Therefore any part of the economy that depends on trade is going to be under severe stress, and even things that don't require foreign trade could be under stress because the Iranian government just doesn't have the money to provide things the way it used to," O'Hanlon said.
While many Iranians also took to social media to air their grievances about the increased gas prices, French news agency AFP said some members of Iran's ruling conservative and reformist political factions posted online messages defending the government.
Even after the reduction in subsidies, gas prices in Iran remain among the cheapest in the world, a phenomenon that has led to high consumption and rampant fuel smuggling to neighboring countries.
This article originated in VOA's Persian service. VOA Persian's Katherine Ahn contributed.