Opinion

Protests spread to Iranian cities

Protests spread to Iranian cities

Author

Iran has become the scene of widespread protests and demonstrations, having first erupted in Ahvaz and spread to many other cities including the capital Tehran. 

The protesters are angered over the regime’s decision to unexpectedly increase gasoline prices by 50 percent. Some protesters blocked the Mullah Thani expressway and were heard shouting “Gasoline has become more expensive, the poor have become poorer,” and “dignified Ahvazis, switch off your cars.”

They also carried signs reading: “We will never again buy gasoline, one hand does make much noise.” Protesters also blocked several roads by switching off car engines or leaving their vehicles in traffic.

The authorities have responded with aggression. Security forces attacked demonstrators and at least one person has been killed, with several injured. 

The Islamic Republic appears to be scrambling to compensate for the loss of revenues that it is encountering due to a major decline in the regime’s oil exports. US sanctions on the country have exerted significant pressure on the ruling clerics.

Tehran is desperate to generate revenue, in order to fund its military interests in the wider region and support its proxies everywhere from Yemen to Lebanon. According to the latest reports, US sanctions have forced Iran to cut funds to its militias in Syria, making it extremely difficult for them to continue fighting. 

Tehran is desperate to generate revenue, in order to fund its military interests in the wider region and support its proxies everywhere from Yemen to Lebanon.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

A militant with an Iranian-backed group in Syria told the New York Times: “The golden days are gone and will never return. Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.” 

Feeling the pressure of the sanctions, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has been calling on his group’s fundraising arm “to provide the opportunity for jihad with money and help with this ongoing battle.”

Iran is also facing strategic challenges in Iraq and Lebanon from protests against the leaderships of both, backed by Tehran, which have crossed long-established political and religious divides.

It is important to point out that the current protests in Iran are expression of broad frustration with the clerical regime. 

The economic situation has become dire for much of the Iranian population. The prices of basic necessities are skyrocketing, and many people are jobless. This is not because people do not have skills — Iran has an educated youth population, but almost 30 percent of them cannot find jobs do to a shortage in labor demands. In some provinces, the unemployment rate is over 60 percent. According to an official representative of the regime’s Planning and Management Organization, “42 percent of unemployed people in Iran have a university degree, and huge sums of money have been spent on their education.” While an acceptable inflation rate around the world is about 2 percent, Iran’s is currently over 33 percent.

The political nature of these protests has been clear from the get-go, despite the rise in gasoline price lighting the fire. That is why people have been heard chanting for the regime to step aside.

People are angered by corruption, mismanagement, embezzlement, and money laundering.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the main figures of the theocracy, have become a permanent fixture in the protestors’ slogans. Throughout Rouhani’s more than six years as president, the Iranian public has been subject to an escalating crackdown, involving mass arrests of activists, journalists, partygoers, and other advocates of a liberal society. 

Also of concern is the vast expenditure of Iranian wealth on foreign conflicts and in support of terrorist proxies. Some protestors, at great risk to themselves, have been heard chanting: “Let go of Syria, think of us.” The Iranian regime allocates a significant portion of its budget to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Clearly, the public is fed up that they are being prioritized.

The Iranian people are not only protesting economic mismanagement, but also expressing much broader political frustration with the direction of the theocracy.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Violent protests grip major Iranian cities over gas price rise 

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The demonstrations took place in over a dozen cities in the hours following President Rouhani’s decision at midnight on Friday to cut gasoline subsidies. (AFP )
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People stop their cars on a highway to protest against increased gas price in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. (Reuters)
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Riot police tries to disperse people as they protest on a highway against increased gas price in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. (Reuters)
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Riot police tries to disperse people as they protest on a highway against increased gas price in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. (Reuters)
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People protest against increased gas price, on a highway in Tehran, Iran November 16, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 17 November 2019

Violent protests grip major Iranian cities over gas price rise 

  • One protester was killed in the central city of Sirjan, where people tried to set fire to a fuel depot
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in support of protests in Iran

TEHRAN: Protesters angered by Iran raising government-set gasoline prices by 50 percent blocked traffic in major cities and occasionally clashed with police on Saturday after a night of demonstrations punctuated by gunfire, in violence that reportedly killed at least one person.

The death occurred in the central city of Sirjan, where people tried to set fire to a fuel depot but were thwarted by security forces including police, the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The protests put renewed pressure on Iran’s government as it struggles to overcome the US sanctions strangling the country after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Though largely peaceful, demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos purporting to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires. 

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard educated Iranian-American political scientist, told Arab News that the Islamic Republic appears to be scrambling to compensate for the loss of revenues that it is encountering due to a major decline in the regime’s oil exports. “US sanctions on the country have exerted significant pressure on the ruling clerics.”

He said: “Tehran is desperate to generate revenue, in order to fund its military interests in the wider region and support its proxies everywhere from Yemen to Lebanon. 

“It is important to point out that the current protests in Iran are expression of broad frustration with the clerical regime.  While representing a political risk for President Hassan Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, it also shows the widespread anger among Iran’s 80 million people who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the national rial currency’s collapse.
 

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The demonstrations took place in over a dozen cities in the hours following Rouhani’s decision at midnight Friday to cut gasoline subsidies to fund handouts for Iran’s poor. 

Gasoline in the country still remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter of gas — 50 percent up from the day before. That’s 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the US costs $2.60 by comparison.

Iran imposed petrol rationing and raised pump prices by at least 50 percent on Friday, saying the move was aimed at helping citizens in need with cash handouts. 

President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that currently 75 percent of Iranians were “under pressure” and the extra revenues from the petrol price hike would go to them, and not the treasury.

Rouhani had tried to hike fuel prices in December but was blocked by parliament in the wake of protests that rocked Iran for days.The speaker at the time ruled out the move as unpopular and said it was “not in the interests of the country.”

The rationing and price hike come at a sensitive time as Iran prepares for a parliamentary election in February.

The measure was expected to bring in $2.55 billion per annum, the head of the country’s Planning and Budget Organization, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, said on state television.

About 60 million Iranians in need would get payments ranging from $4.68 for couples to slightly more than $17.46 for families with five members or more, he said.

Under the scheme, drivers with fuel cards will pay 13 US cents a liter for the first 60 liters of petrol bought each month, with each additional liter costing them 71 US cents.

But in a nation where many get by as informal taxi drivers, cheap gasoline is considered a birthright. Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. While expected for months, the decision still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.
 

Violence broke out Friday night in Sirjan, a city some 800 km southeast of Tehran. The state-run IRNA news agency said “protesters tried to set fire to the oil depot, but they were stopped by police.” 

It did not elaborate, but online videos circulating on Iranian social media purported to show a fire at the depot as sirens wailed in the background. Another showed a large crowd shouting: “Rouhani, shame on you! Leave the country alone!”

Mohammad Mahmoudabadi, an Interior Ministry official in Sirjan, later told state television that police and demonstrators exchanged gunfire, wounding several.

It was a “calm gathering” that was exploited by some who “destroyed public property, damaged fuel stations and also wanted to access the oil company’s main fuel depots and set fire to them,” he said.

Besides Sirjan, “scattered” protests were also held on Friday in other cities including Abadan, Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Birjand, Gachsaran, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Mashhad and Shiraz, state news agency IRNA said.

But they were mostly limited to blocking traffic and were over by midnight, IRNA reported.

Fresh demonstrations were held on Saturday in the cities of Doroud, Garmsar, Gorgan, Ilam, Karaj, Khoramabad, Mehdishahr, Qazvin, Qom, Sanandaj, Shahroud and Shiraz, IRNA said.

“Some drivers have protested the new petrol price by turning off their cars and creating traffic jams,” the official news agency added.


Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

Updated 4 min 23 sec ago

Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

  • President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States”
  • Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018

TEHRAN: Iran and the US conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw a detained Princeton graduate student released for an Iranian scientist held by America, marking a potential breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made the first announcement on the trade via Twitter. The trade involves graduate student Xiyue Wang and scientist Massoud Soleimani.
“Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Zarif wrote. “Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.”
In his tweet, Zarif confirmed rumors that had been circulating for days that a deal was in the works to free Wang.
President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States.”
“Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said. “We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America's interests in the country as the U.S. Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 student takeover and 444-day hostage crisis.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, accompanied the Iranian scientist to Switzerland to make the exchange and will return with Wang, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be released. The swap took place in Zurich and Hook and Wang are now en route to Landstuhl in Germany where Wang will be examined by doctors, the official said. Hook is expected to return to the US from Germany alone, as Wang is expected to be evaluated for several days.
Although Hook was present for the swap, the official said Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien played the lead role in the negotiations dating from his time as the special representative for hostage affairs at the State Department.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later reported that Soleimani was with Iranian officials in Switzerland. Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours. Zarif later posted pictures of himself on Twitter with Soleimani in front of an Iranian government jet and later with the two talking on board.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly “infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad. His family and Princeton University strongly denied the claims. Wang was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton.
Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, released a statement saying “our family is complete once again.”
“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
Princeton University spokesman Ben Chang said the school was aware of Wang's release.
“We are working with the family and government officials to facilitate his return to the United States,” Chang said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court tried Wang. That court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Soleimani — who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine — was arrested by US authorities on charges he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. He and his lawyers maintain his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the US to Iran in September 2016 as a chance to get recombinant proteins used in his research for a fraction of the price he’d pay at home.
Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. In the time since, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran's economy. There also have been a series of attacks across the Mideast that the US blames on Iran.
Other Americans held in Iran include the 81-year-old businessman Baquer Namazi who has been held for over two years and diagnosed with epilepsy.
Both Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak Namazi, also a dual national who has been held for over three years, are serving a 10-year sentence after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power.
An Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Also held is US Navy veteran Michael White.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while saying Wang would soon be able to go home to his family, acknowledged other Americans remain held by Iran.
“The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” Pompeo said in a statement.