One dead as petrol protests spread in Iran

Tehran (AFP) - One person was killed and others injured in protests that spread Saturday across Iran after a surprise decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing in the sanctions-hit country.

The death occurred Friday in the central city of Sirjan, where protesters had tried to set a fuel depot ablaze but were thwarted by security forces, semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

Protests erupted hours after it was announced the price of petrol would be increased by 50 percent for the first 60 litres and 300 percent for anything above that each month.

Sirjan's acting governor Mohammad Mahmoudabadi said a civilian was killed but it was unclear if he had been "shot or not".

"Security forces did not have permission to shoot and were only allowed to fire warning shots... which they did," ISNA quoted him as saying.

He said some people "destroyed public property, damaged fuel stations and also wanted to access the oil company's main fuel depots and set fire to them".

Protests were also held Friday in other cities including Abadan, Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Birjand, Gachsaran, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Mashhad and Shiraz, state news agency IRNA said.

In Ahvaz "rioters" torched a bank and in Khoramshahr "suspicious and unknown armed individuals" opened fire and injured a number of people, state television's website said.

In other cities, protests were mostly limited to blocking traffic and were over by midnight, it added.

Police fired tear gas at protesters in some cities, state television said.

It accused "hostile media" of trying to use fake news and videos on social media to exaggerate protests as "large and extensive".

Prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri laid the blame for incidents on a "few disruptors" whose actions showed they opposed the system.

- 'Near-total' net shutdown -

Netblocks, an internet monitoring website, said late Saturday the country was in the grip of an internet shutdown.

"Confirmed: Iran is now in the midst of a near-total national internet shutdown; realtime network data show connectivity at 7% of ordinary levels after twelve hours of progressive network disconnections," it said on Twitter.

Fresh demonstrations were held 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."

In Tehran protesters were seen blocking a road while elsewhere in the capital demonstrators gathered around a burning vehicle.

Similar scenes were witnessed in the central cities of Shiraz and Isfahan.

The pump price hike is expected to generate 300 trillion rials ($2.55 billion) per annum and help needy citizens, authorities said.

About 60 million Iranians would receive payments ranging from 550,000 rials ($4.68) for couples to slightly more than two million rials ($17.46) for families of five or more.

Under the scheme, drivers with fuel cards would pay 15,000 rials (13 US cents) a litre for the first 60 litres of petrol bought each month, with each additional litre costing 30,000 rials.

Fuel cards were first introduced in 2007 with a view to reforming the subsidies system and curbing large-scale smuggling.

Iran's economy has been battered since May last year when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The rial has plummeted, inflation is running at more than 40 percent and the International Monetary Fund expects Iran's economy to contract by nine percent this year and stagnate in 2020.

- 'Under pressure' -

President Hassan Rouhani said 75 percent of Iranians were "under pressure" and the extra petrol revenues would go to them.

Rouhani had tried to hike fuel prices in December but was blocked by parliament after protests that rocked Iran for days.

The scheme comes at a sensitive time as Iran prepares for a February parliamentary election.

The head of Iran's Planning and Budget Organisation, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, said the price hike was agreed by the High Council of Economic Coordination made up of the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief, implying it had across-the-board approval.

The council met again Saturday and, according to the government's official website, urged the "cooperation of all branches to successfully implement the plan".

Lawmakers were unhappy to have been circumvented, with Tehran MP Parvaneh Salahshouri tweeting that parliament had "lost its authority".

In 2015, during his first term, Rouhani had voiced opposition to a dual-price petrol regime adopted by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying "it caused corruption".

His administration also scrapped Ahmadinejad's fuel card scheme, only to revive it this year while still denying it was a precursor to rationing and price hikes.