Petrol rationing sparks protests

After months of hesitation and delay, Iran's islamic rulers this week gave a two-hour warning before imposing fuel rationing for private vehicles. Yassamine Mather comments

Although Iran has huge energy reserves, its refining capacity is limited and it imports 40% of its petrol. The government claims the measure was necessary in order to reduce the budget deficit. However, the timing indicates fear of further sanctions, as well as total obedience to the diktat of the International Monetary Fund.

The first night after rationing was announced, angry crowds set fire to cars, petrol stations were vandalised and a number of supermarkets and banks were attacked in Tehran. Cars were blowing their horns as protests grew and a mass reproduced text message calling for a demonstration in Vali Asr Square brought the capital's mobile phone system to a halt.

"Guns, fireworks, tanks - Ahmadinejad should be killed," shouted youths throwing stones at police. Reports suggest that for over 20 hours Tehran saw riots before the bassij militia and other military forces were sent in to control every petrol station and main junction. All this despite the fact that the government had announced the rationing in the evening in an attempt to minimise the reaction to yet another unpopular decision.

The protests were not limited to Tehran - similar reports came from many provincial cities, and Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz also saw riots. Scores of petrol stations were set on fire and there were hundreds of arrests. There are unconfirmed reports of deaths and injury, while taxi and cab drivers in Tehran are threatening to strike.

In explaining the rationing a number of points should be emphasised: first and foremost it exposed president Ahmadinejad's empty promise of 'justice' and 'bringing the benefits of oil to every Iranian'. Fuel rationing to 'achieve realistic prices' is a direct attack on the income of millions of impoverished Iranians, many of whom have relied on acting as cab drivers after their working day to supplement their meagre wages. It will lead to higher rates of inflation, with even higher prices for transport. There are already reports of a 20% rise in fares.

Secondly, irrespective of the vast sums that will be pocketed by smugglers and rentier capitalists associated with the regime - ie, those who control (and monopolise) petrol distribution - it is quite clear that the current rise in the price of refined fuel is a direct consequence of US-UK-imposed sanctions. As we have said in the past, it is the working class and the poor in Iran who pay for the rising costs caused by these sanctions and the current fiasco in Tehran and other major cities is just one example of what is in store.

Thirdly, distribution of cheap petrol and subsidies were for many years presented by the regime as a means of redistributing oil wealth amongst ordinary Iranians. Quite clearly the current abolition of subsidies is part of the neoliberal economic package imposed by the International Monetary Fund and that is why the 'reformists' and other capitalist factions of the regime have supported this latest policy of Ahmadinejad's government. In fact we know that this policy was approved during the previous presidency of Mohammad Khatami in what was labelled by the international media as a 'reformist' parliament.

Finally it should be remembered that the reaction of ordinary people to this issue is a manifestation of their anger and frustration with many aspects of the regime's policies.

High prices, low wages, rising inflation, the religious intervention in every aspect of the public and private life of Iranians (including the imposition of stricter rules for the wearing of the hijab by young women) are only part of the many reasons why most Iranians hate this regime. If it was not for the threat of war and regime change Bush-style, the islamic government would have been overthrown many months ago.

Hands Off the People of Iran has confidence in the anti-capitalist, anti-islamic opposition of workers, women, students and youth throughout Iran not only to war and sanctions, but to the reactionary policies of the mullahs. Hopi's slogan is 'No to imperialist war, no to the theocratic regime'.