TEHRAN — Demonstrations swept Iran this weekend as angry crowds protested the government's decision to raise gasoline prices.
The country's supreme leader Sunday backed the move to hike prices, labeling violent protests the acts of "thugs" as authorities shut down much of the internet and issued stark warnings in an effort to quell the sudden unrest.
At least one person was killed and hundreds arrested, according to state media, after clashes in cities across the Islamic Republic saw security forces fire tear gas and live ammunition.
Protesters set tires ablaze, looted and lit dozens of banks on fire, and abandoned their cars on highways to maximise disruption.
The country's capital, Tehran, was at a standstill late Saturday as the jammed roads combined with unseasonal snowfall.
In an address aired by state television early Sunday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “some lost their lives and some places were destroyed,” without elaborating. He suggested protesters had been pushed into violence by counter-revolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran.
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“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by our people. This is what criminals, thugs and hooligans do,” he added.
Crucially, Khamenei offered his support for the policy that set off the protests.
Under the new fuel measures decided on by President Hassan Rouhani's government, each motorist is allowed to buy petrol at a minimum $0.13 a litre, or about 50 cents a gallon. That's an increase of 50 percent from the day before.
A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.60 by comparison.
Gasoline in the country is among the cheapest in the world, with Iranians heavily dependent on their cars.
Many make a living from driving or use it as a secondary source of income. Cars are also the main means of transport for most people, especially outside the cities.
Although there has been a plan to reduce subsidies and increase energy prices for some time, the timing of the price increase caught many by surprise.
Iran's economy has been struggling to overcome biting U.S. sanctions amid renewed tension between Washington and Tehran, with many among the country’s 80 million people suffering growing economic hardship.
Anti-government protests have also swept through other countries in the Middle East, including neighboring Iraq and Lebanon which are crucial to Tehran's influence throughout the region.