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Why Iran has erupted into protest

Iran, Tehran, Protest
Iran, Tehran, Protest

Protesters gather around a burned-out car in Tehran

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Iran, Tehran, Protest

Hundreds of people have died in widespread unrest following fuel price hikes

In Depth Gabriel Power
Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 2:47pm

The Iranian government has admitted that its security forces shot and killed protesters taking part in street demonstrations across the country last month.

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President Hassan Rouhani had been accused of “deliberately covering up the scale of the crackdown on the four days of unrest in more than 100 locations”, the BBC reports. Amid growing condemnation from the international community, Iran’s state-run IRTV2 channel broadcast a report this week confirming that police had killed people described as “armed thugs and rioters” who had allegedly attacked sensitive or military centres.

Amnesty International says that at least 208 protesters were killed in the clashes, with some estimates putting the death toll as high as 400. During a trip to London this week for a Nato summit, US President Donald Trump even claimed that “Iran is killing perhaps thousands and thousands of people right now as we speak”.

Why are Iranians protesting?

The protests began peacefully on 15 November “following a sudden government announcement about a fuel price hike which will have a detrimental impact on people who are already struggling amid Iran’s economic crisis”, says the Amnesty International website.

Under the changes, the price of petrol rose by 50% to 15,000 rials (£0.09 at the unofficial market exchange rate) a litre, and drivers were told they would be allowed to purchase only 60 litres each month before the price rose to 30,000 rials (£0.18).

The New York Times says that the energy policy “appeared to be the latest attempt by the Islamic Republic to manage an economic crisis worsened by American sanctions that have sharply reduced oil exports”. 

Iranian officials this week reported that an estimated 200,000 people were involved in the protests, with a total of around 7,000 arrests made in cities and towns nationwide.


As the protests grew larger, the government took the unprecedented decision to shut down internet services in the country for more than a week, making it “hard to gather information about what was happening on the streets”, says the BBC. However, “video footage that reached the outside world appeared to show security forces shooting at unarmed demonstrators”, the broadcaster continues.

Rouhani subsequently “blamed the protests on foreign meddling and said his government had successfully pacified demonstrators”, Al Jazeera reports.

Although Tehran has now confirmed that there were fatalities during the unrest, no figures have been given. Along with “armed thugs and rioters”, those killed included security personnel, passers-by hit by crossfire or victims of “suspicious shootings”, according to the authorities.


Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East research and advocacy director, has said the number of deaths confirmed by his organisation is “evidence that Iran’s security forces went on a horrific killing spree”, The Guardian reports.

“Those responsible for this bloody clampdown on demonstrations must be held accountable for their actions,” Luther insisted.

But Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters that “the numbers and figures that are being given by hostile groups are utter lies, and the [official] statistics have serious differences with what they announced”.

However, in an apparent show of good will, Rouhani this week called for any unarmed and innocent people arrested during the protests to be freed.

“Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed ... should be released,” the president said in a televised speech.

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