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Gas rationing triggers unrest in Iran
At least a dozen filling stations are torched as demonstrators take to the streets after the surprise edict.

LA Times | June 27, 2007
Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi

TEHRAN -- Demonstrators took to the streets and torched at least a dozen gas stations after the surprise start of gasoline rationing early this morning, Iranian news agencies and witnesses reported.

Under a plan to curb rapidly increasing domestic consumption of Iran's limited supply of gasoline, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implemented a program that limits motorists to 26.4 gallons a month at the subsidized priced of 42 cents per gallon.

The proposal sparked public fury when it was first announced earlier this year. It had been temporarily shelved, only to be revived Tuesday night just two hours before it went into effect.

"From midnight tonight, gasoline for all motor vehicles and motorcycles will be rationed," state television said in an announcement quoting the Oil Ministry.

Motorists rushed to gas stations to fill up before the plan went into effect. Angry mobs in the capital set gas stations afire. A spokesman for the fire department told the daily World of Industry newspaper that 21 gas stations were burned down, but a source at the Gas Station Owners syndicate told the same paper the number was 16 and others cited the figure 12.

Witnesses said demonstrators chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad, calling him a "pimp." Scuffles broke out between pro-government Basiji militiamen and the protesters. Shots of the burned gas stations appeared on national television.

"I saw a looter carrying a television set on his shoulder from a shopping mall," said Nasser Eimani, a Tehran resident. "A Basiji intercepted him and a fight broke out."

Rioters smashed windows of government banks and burned down a gas station in the district of Ghaleh Morghi, in the far south of the capital, said Hassan Karimi, a retired bus driver who lives in the area and witnessed the attacks. A witness also said that a gas station was burned down in Garmsar, Ahmadinejad's hometown.

The capital's normally frenetic traffic eased today as motorists stayed home to conserve gasoline or waited in long lines to fill up their tanks at undamaged gas stations, guarded by contingents of police.

Despite huge oil reserves, Iran lacks refining capacity to meet rising domestic demand for gasoline and must import fuel from abroad, which it sells at a subsidized rate that costs the government at least $4 billion annually.

The new plan allows motorists to pump gas only with a debit card that keeps track of monthly consumption. The plan will be in place for four months and then reevaluated, according to the announcement on state-controlled television.

Lawmakers huddled with Oil Minister Vaziri Hamaneh in closed-door meetings today to discuss a plan for setting a price for fuel to be sold above the rationing quota.

Some experts speculated that the rioting was organized by leaders of smuggling rings that sell subsidized fuel to other Persian Gulf countries for huge profits. Others cautioned not to read too much into the unrest.

"These types of revolts are not new," said Mostafa Labbad, a Cairo-based Iran expert and publisher of Sharqnameh, an Egyptian journal about Iranian and Turkish affairs. "In Karaj and the outer parts of Iran, there are such rebellions every two or three months. They show the unpopularity of the country's economic policies."

Ahmadinejad, a self-styled populist, came to power in 2005 on a platform of bringing a larger share of the country's immense oil wealth "to the tablecloths" of Iran's ordinary people, who are under tremendous economic pressure because of inflation and stagnant government wages.

Instead, Ahmadinejad's administration has imposed its conservative religious ideology on the country and stepped up the country's anti-Western and anti-Israeli foreign policy agenda. This week, Ahmadinejad renewed his controversial prediction that the state of Israel would soon meet its end.

"When I say these words, expansionist powers grow upset and hold sessions," Ahmadinejad said Tuesday, according to the Fars news agency. "But this is a reality that with every crime criminals commit, they come one step closer to demise and death."

Iran has been slapped with United Nations sanctions for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program. The country has faced increasing economic hardship over the last two years despite record-high global market prices for unrefined crude oil, its main export. Sanctions have taken a toll on the once burgeoning private sector as foreign banks and businesses balk at doing business with Tehran.

"Ahmadinejad promised so much," said Labbad, who frequently visits Iran. "But the economy has not gotten any better."

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