Iranian riot police clashed with protesters in Tehran on Wednesday as public anger over economic problems in the sanction-hit country erupted onto the street. The protests were the most dramatic in Iran since bitter demonstrations erupted after the 2009 presidential elections.
Thousands of people took to the streets, and TV footage showed the protesters shouting slogans of “Death to the corrupt regime” and “Get out of Syria, and start taking care of us” — a reference to Iranian involvement in helping President Bashar Assad repel Syrian rebel efforts to oust his regime.
Police reportedly used tear gas to disperse about 100 people who had gathered outside the capital’s central bank and were chanting anti-government slogans.
Iranian officials have faced increasing public anger over the plummeting rial and rising prices, blamed partly on Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The city’s main bazaar was shuttered, reportedly in support of the demonstrations, as protesters gathered to rally against government policies that have led to the devaluation of its currency, the rial, which has hit a record low against the US dollar.
The government said the market was closed for security reasons. A shopkeeper told BBC News he expected it to reopen on Thursday.
Video posted on YouTube purporting to be from Wednesday showed many shops in the bazaar with their doors partially closed.
The sprawling bazaar has played a critical role in charting Iran’s political course — leading a revolt that wrung pro-democratic concession from the ruling monarchy more than a century ago and siding with the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Ahmad Karimi Isfahani, a bazaar official, as denying reports that merchants staged a protest. Mehr later quoted police Col. Khalili Helali as saying that bazaar was not officially closed, but noting that authorities will take action against many merchants who have shuttered their shops.
“The Tehran bazaar is not closed. Police will deal with the guilds that have closed their shops to cause (economic) disruption,” Mehr quoted Helali as saying.
Police also patrolled streets where freelance money dealers work, with several reportedly rounded up. Exchange shops were closed.
The rial hit 34,500 against the U.S. dollar Tuesday on the unofficial street trading rate. Two years ago, it was close to 10,000 rials for the dollar.
Washington on Monday pointed to the drop in the rial’s value as proof that sanctions on the country were working.
The West has leveled restrictions, described by the US state department as “punishing,” against Iran’s oil and banking sectors in a bid to halt the country’s nuclear program.
The rial’s sharp decline is attributed to a combination of Western sanctions and government policies — such as fueling inflation by increasing the money supply while also holding down bank interest rates. That prompted many people to withdraw their rials to exchange for foreign currency over the past months.
On Tuesday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters that the country would overcome the sanctions, but that restrictions on the banking industry were taking a toll.
“Worse than the oil sanction are the sanctions on banking transactions. If oil is sold, the payment cannot be transferred,” he said, adding that the country was finding ways around a blockade on selling its oil.
He described the sanctions as part of a “heavy battle” that has succeeded in driving down oil exports “a bit,” but he gave no precise figures. Some oil analysts estimate exports have fallen by more than 30 percent since July, when the 27-nation European Union halted purchases of Iranian crude.
Many economists and experts have accused the government of deliberately provoking an increase in dollar rates in order to meet its own budget deficit. The government earns more than 90 percent of Iran’s overall foreign exchange revenues as a result of oil sales. Higher dollar rates bring higher rial earnings for the government.
It could also bring more political heat on Ahmadinejad, who has been left severely weakened after unsuccessfully challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the powers of the presidency. Ahmadinejad now could face increasing domestic attacks before elections, including possibly being called before parliament for questioning over the currency upheavals.