Iran’s parliament last night agreed to press ahead with plans to introduce fuel rationing in the face of panic and rioting across the country over the proposals.
The protests presented a rare public challenge for President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, whose popularity has been based on his pledge to share oil revenues more fairly and cut living costs for ordinary Iranians.
After attending a closed parliamentary session addressed by the interior and oil ministers, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, said fuel rationing, introduced at midnight on Tuesday, had to continue, to thwart US threats and the possibility of sanctions hitting petrol imports.
Though Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, its lack of refineries means it must import about 40 per cent of its petrol – of which it consumes about 75m litres a day. Iran imported Dollars 4.9bn (Pounds 2.45bn) worth of petrol in the year to March 20. This year, however, the government is authorized by parliament to import only Dollars 2.5bn.
Police were out in force in the capital to protect petrol stations, at least 10 of which had been burned overnight by angry crowds.
In north-western Tehran, police patrolled the Niyayesh highway, where one petrol station had been burnt. Protesters had also smashed the windows of the nearby state-owned banks Sepah and Tejarat. "It serves this regime right," said one driver passing by a burnt petrol station. "People should do the same in response to huge increases in the prices of other goods."
Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, oil minister, assured people they would not face petrol shortages. But this failed to convince Tehran motorists, who formed queues up to several kilometers long outside those petrol stations that remained open.
The local media reported similar long lines throughout the country, although only three petrol stations outside the capital were reported to have been set ablaze and there were no reports of casualties. The judiciary said 80 people "who destroyed public resources" had been detained.
The government made contradictory statements about fuel rationing plans in the run-up to Tuesday’s announcement.
Motorists were instructed to use smart cards last month to prepare for rationing, but hundreds of thousands of drivers have yet to obtain them, including Tehran’s 5,000-strong taxi fleet. The government has imposed rations of 100 liters of petrol a month for private cars, 450 liters for private taxis and 800 liters for shared taxis.
Petrol prices, which were raised by 25 per cent to about 11 US cents a liter, last month, remain among the world’s lowest. But Iranians believe that in an oil-rich country, with the second largest oil and gas reserves in the world, they have a right to cheap energy.
(Financial Times, Zawya)