Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday that Iran could not allow “insecurity” in the face of rioting after two days of violent demonstrations against a petrol price hike.
“Protesting is the people’s right, but protesting is different from rioting. We should not allow insecurity in the society,” Rouhani told a cabinet meeting, as quoted by his official website.
Rouhani defended the controversial gas price hike — which the government says will finance social welfare spending — arguing the alternatives were less favorable.
“The government’s purpose in the livelihood support program is to help low- and medium-income families who are under pressure in the situation with economic sanctions,” he said.
“For this… we should either increase taxes on the people, export more oil… or reduce subsidies and return the revenues to the people in need.”
His remarks came as Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday called angry protesters “thugs,” signaling a potential crackdown on the demonstrations.
In an address aired by state television, Khamenei said “some lost their lives and some places were destroyed,” without elaborating.
“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by the people. This is what thugs do,” Khamenei said.
Iran imposed gasoline rationing and raised pump prices by at least 50 percent on Friday, saying the move was aimed at helping citizens in need with cash handouts from the increase.
Since the hike, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major highways and joined mass protests in the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere. Some protests turned violent, with demonstrators setting fires and there was also gunfire.
Iranian authorities on Sunday raised the official death toll in the violence surrounding the unrest to at least two. Attackers targeting a police station in Kermanshah on Saturday killed one officer there, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Sunday. Earlier, one man was reported killed.
The semiofficial Fars news agency put the total number of protesters at over 87,000, saying demonstrators ransacked some 100 banks and stores in the country. Authorities arrested some 1,000 people, Fars reported, citing unnamed security officials for the information.
Iranian internet access saw disruptions and outages Friday night into Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, connectivity had fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels. It was mostly unchanged on Sunday.
NetBlocks called it the most severe shutdown the group had tracked in any country “in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.” On Twitter, NetBlocks said the disruption constituted “a severe violation” of Iranians’ “basic rights and liberties.”
The internet firm Oracle called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
The semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Sunday that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council ordered a “restriction of access” to the internet nationwide, without elaborating.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.