This past week, riots in Iran over increases in gasoline prices have exposed widening internal tensions in the country.
The tensions started when Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani accused the hardliners of massive corruption. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports the hardliners in Iran and their latest anti-corruption campaign against Rouhani’s camp.
The campaign targets pro-Rouhani politicians and department managers but according to Iran’s president, it is the hardliners who are involved in major corruption scandals in Iran.
The fight between the two camps has turned personal. Iran’s head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, who is in charge of the country’s anti-corruption witch-hunt, has suggested that Rouhani is unhappy with the corruption files piling up against his team of supporters. Rouhani’s brother was recently convicted in a corruption case for which he received a five-year jail sentence.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is loyal to the supreme leader recently disclosed that those who have been charged with corruption but have fled the country would be arrested and prosecuted . This includes the likes of Rasoul Danielzadeh, a business partner of Rouhani’s convicted brother Hossein Fereydoun.
The Central Bank’s former head under Rouhani, Valiollah Seif, is also barred from leaving the country as he is charged with ignoring massive corruption at the bank. The judiciary has meanwhile promised to look into the astronomical salaries that Rouhani’s managers receive. It alleges that Iran’s free trade zones, run by Rouhani’s managers, have turned into hubs for the trafficking of goods.
Rouhani has since lashed out by suggesting that hardliners may have stolen 2.7 billion dollars of Iran’s oil revenues in the past few years as well as the interest on the money. Iran’s hardliners have rejected the charge, and claim that Iran’s reformists pocketed the money.
In the midst of the media coverage of the corruption witch-hunt, the Iranian people have started major riots across the country due to gasoline price hikes in recent days. The government has hiked gasoline prices to curb demand. Demand increased by 9.7 percent last year. If demand for gasoline continues to rise, Iran will be forced to import gasoline by 2021. Under sanctions, Iran has no choice but to produce its own gasoline and increase its price to discourage lower demand.
Iran’s political elites have rallied to condemn the riots, and defend the price hike, despite their apparent differences. Though it appears that they are backing the Rouhani government for now, it is clear that rifts are growing within Iran’s political ranks.
To appease economic worries and to preempt further tensions in the country, Rouhani has promised to provide subsidized aid for low to middle-income families this week. Hardliners are questioning where the money will come from. The aid will be distributed twice, each time to 20 million people in need across Iran. Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has further promised to distribute the money from higher gasoline prices among the poor.
To stop the riots, the government has shut down access to the worldwide web across Iran, though Iranians are still able to access local Iran-based cyber networks to carry out day-to-day business.
The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered full public compliance with the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices, insisting that the latest riots are not a popular uprising but a result of pre-planned tensions aiming to cause instability in Iran. He went on to attack the followers of Iran’s former monarchical regime, the Pahlavis, and the opposition group the Mujahedeen Khalq Organization (MEK), for using social media to stir riots in Iran.
For now, the supreme leader’s position has forced 12 hardline members of Iran’s Parliament to withdraw their demands to question and potentially impeach Rouhani for economic mismanagement.
But signs indicate that followers of the supreme leader, led by Raisi, are getting ready to take charge of the economy and run the country themselves, a move that could isolate Rouhani further. Raisi has been directly tasked by the supreme leader to set up a committee designed to gather trusted state managers and provincial politicians to find ways of enforcing gasoline rationing across the country, and regulate the economy before riots lead to government instability.