Since Iran’s media isn’t free and the state is authoritarian, and Western reporting must be viewed with caution due to the curbs in place, it isn’t easy to ascertain the political impact of the protests that rocked the country in November, and the strong governmental repression that followed.
The protests after the November 14 rationing of already very cheap petrol, and raising of its price by 50 per cent, spread rapidly across Iran, suggesting public receptivity. At some places it turned violent. Initial reports of deaths after police firing were modest, but later Amnesty International spoke of 208 deaths, which Tehran denied.
This figure is unsubstantiated. But the official Iranian media too have spoken of many deaths in police action, though no figure was provided. What is undeniable is the frequency of large-scale public protests that spread quickly. In December 2017-January 2018, nationwide protests were set off by a hike in food prices. Two years later, petrol is the trigger.
Officially, Tehran accepts that 75 per cent of the population is vulnerable. The US sanctions under President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, after Washington resiled from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran last year, have evidently taken their toll. The economy contracted nine per cent, inflation is at 40 per cent, and unemployment is high. It’s probably to address this situation that President Hassan Rouhani’s government decided last month to cut petrol subsidies to meet other pressing needs of the bulk of the 82 million population.
But the timing of implementing the IMF-mandated move seems odd as parliamentary elections are due in two months. If that suggests a quiet move within the higher levels of the ecclesiastical regime to embarrass the moderate President, more information is needed for a confirmation.