By turning off internet access, the Iranian authorities are trying to kill two birds with one stone: make it more difficult to organize protests and prevent the demonstrators from sending videos outside the country.
(Editor’s note: By late Tuesday evening, Amnesty International reported that Iranian government forces had killed more than 100 people, according to video footage and witness testimony that has managed to escape the internet shutdown.)
The first access cuts were reported at lunchtime on Friday, in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Then, internet connections stopped working in the capital and in Shiraz. As the protests spread, at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, all major mobile operators—MCI, Rightel and IranCell—went offline.
According to the NetBlocks NGO, which focuses on Internet monitoring and governance, there has never been such a level of access cuts, in Iran or anywhere else.
The ayatollahs also jammed the BBC broadcasts in Farsi, which have always been a source for the Iranians to get unbiased information about their country. As of Tuesday night, they were still isolated from the rest of the world.
At the same time, the Pasdaran have threatened harsh retaliation against those responsible for the unrest. However, such repressive measures will not be enough in the face of the widespread discontent due to decades of Western sanctions and promises never kept by the country’s leadership.
The protests were triggered by the cutting of gasoline subsidies. Until last Friday, motorists could purchase a maximum of 250 liters of gasoline per month at a price of just €0.11 per liter, the lowest price anywhere in the world, below the costs of extraction and refining. The Iranians see this as their right, due to the enormous energy resources possessed by their country.
From Friday on, however, they have been restricted to buying 60 liters per person per month, and for any further amount, the price will double, going up to 22 cents. Those bearing the brunt of this price hike will be primarily the many people who make a living as taxi drivers, using applications such as Tap30 and Snapp.
To address the dissent, on Saturday, Conservative MP Mojtaba Zonnour proposed to restore the gas subsidies, but later Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei intervened to shoot down this notion: “The measure was adopted after consulting the experts.” To try to calm the discontent, as early as on Monday night—10 days earlier than expected—the Tehran government paid the first benefits from the new revenue from the controversial gas price hike, to a quarter of the population.
By Saturday, the payments will reach three out of four Iranians, prioritizing the neediest families in the country. This is the government’s answer to the protests that, according to the government, have resulted in 12 dead, but which activists say is much higher.
This approach is certainly not a solution for the problems of a country where inflation is at 40% and which lacks the foreign investment needed for infrastructure, including in the energy field. The biggest problem is that the authorities have managed to keep dissent in check for years by lavishing subsidies for food and energy on a good part of the population. These subsidies were funded by oil money.
The last round of sanctions imposed by Trump, however, have drastically reduced the country’s oil exports, which fell from 2.4 million barrels per day to only 500,000. With the oil embargo, Washington wants to rile up the Iranians against the ruling ayatollahs and the Pasdaran: however, while it’s true that the demonstrators are shouting slogans against the moderate president Rohani, they are also well aware that the crisis was caused by the US withdrawing from the nuclear agreement. This is why, according to the polls, the Iranians are opposed to going back to the negotiating table.
This is also the position supported by the conservatives, who have the wind in their sails for the upcoming parliamentary elections on Feb. 21: after that date, instead of the government of Rohani and Foreign Minister Zarif, which came to power with a message of hope, it’s likely that Brussels and everybody else will have to once again deal with characters in the mold of Ahmadinejad.
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