Protests triggered by rising food prices spread in Iran

The protests came after the government announced a plan to adjust prices for some basic food items by cutting their subsidies. PHOTOS: MOSTAFAME4/TWITTER

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Protests against the government spread to at least six provinces in Iran on Friday (May 13) following several days of sporadic unrest sparked by rising food prices, according to witnesses and videos posted on social media.

Security forces attacked protesters with batons and tear gas and shot bullets in the air in several cities, according to activists, videos shared online and Persian news channels.

The number of casualties and arrests was unclear. Iran's state media called the protesters "provocateurs" and accused them of burning shops, and said at least 22 people had been arrested.

The protests came after the government announced a plan on Monday to adjust prices for some basic food items by cutting their subsidies. Earlier, the government had said wheat and flour would be sold at varying prices depending on the products made with them, triggering a sharp price hike for bread and pasta, staples of Iranian cuisine.

As soon as the new plan was announced, prices for cooking oil quadrupled and prices for chicken and eggs doubled. The price of flat bread increased five-fold this month, and that of baguettes and sandwich rolls as much as ten-fold.

Iranians fearing even more price increases rushed to stock food items, forming long lines stretching for more than 1.6km at grocery stores and supermarket chains across the country, videos and photos showed.

Iran's economy is strained by tough US sanctions banning oil sales and access to the global financial market. But sanctions are not the only cause of economic woes. Decades of corruption, mismanagement and populist economic policies have contributed to 40 per cent inflation, a currency free fall and a budget deficit of nearly US$21 billion (S$29 billion), according to a report by the Parliament's research centre.

The minister of agriculture, Seyyed Javad Sadatinejad, this week blamed the price hikes on the war in Ukraine and the disruption of the global food supply that it has caused. He also accused smugglers of shipping food supplies from within Iran to neighbouring countries.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, the United Nations has warned of a looming global crisis related to surging food prices and food insecurity. Ukraine and Russia provide about 30 per cent of the world's supply of wheat and 62 per cent of its sunflower oil.

As thousands of Iranians, already fed up with inflation and unemployment, took to the streets this week, their protests quickly moved from airing their food grievances to their discontent with the ruling establishment.

"They have no hope, they have no trust in the government and they can't tolerate the status quo any more," said Omid Memarian, an Iran expert at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a nonprofit based in the United States. "This triangle in any country would create a powder keg ready to explode."

Nationwide demonstrations against the government rocked Iran in 2017, 2019 and 2021. In each case, a specific issue like collapsed investment funds, rising gas prices or shortages of water triggered the unrest, which then morphed into calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic system. The government crushed the protests with brutal crackdowns, killing, injuring and arresting hundreds of people.

Iranians fearing even more price increases rushed to stock food items, forming long lines at grocery stores. PHOTO: AFP

On Friday, demonstrators took to the streets at night in cities like Ahvaz, Qazvin, Shahr-e Kord and Dezful, chanting slogans against Iran's top officials, calling for clerics "to get lost" and chanting "death to the dictator", video footage on social media showed.

In one instance on Thursday night, the crowd tore down a banner with the picture of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, as onlookers cheered, videos showed.

Men and women marched down the street in Shahr-e Kord calling President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric in his first year in office, a "liar" for failing to deliver on promises of economic improvement, and demanded his resignation.

In several videos from Khuzestan and Lorestan, in south and south-west Iran, security officers are seen firing guns in the air on streets packed with unarmed people.

The videos have not been independently verified by The New York Times.

In one from the city of Boroujerd on Friday night, a man's voice screams "they are firing on the crowd" and a series of gunshots is heard in the background.

Iran has disrupted Internet connectivity, sometimes completely shutting down access and at other times slowing it down or switching to a domestic Intranet, in the six provinces where protests took place, said Amir Rashidi, a digital rights expert on Iran based in Washington.

Rashidi said the Internet restrictions made it difficult for witnesses to share videos and photographs and to coordinate with each other. It is a tactic that Iran has used previously, including in 2019, when it unplugged the country from the web for nearly a week.

Raisi, the president, visited a grocery hub in downtown Tehran on Friday morning in what appeared to be an attempt to quell the unrest, according to videos on state media. He told shoppers "all efforts are for prices to remain stable".

Raisi said this week that the government would distribute monthly direct cash payments of about US$10 to US$13 for each family member of a low-income household to help soften the blow of subsidy cuts on food. After two months, he said, the government would begin to distribute electronic coupons for unlimited subsidised bread.

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