Violence flares as Iran introduces petrol rationing

Scenes of violence and anger erupted at Iranian petrol stations after the government's surprise announcement that fuel would be rationed from yesterday.

Thousands queued outside petrol stations on Tuesday night, fighting to fill their tanks before a midnight deadline. For several months at least, private cars will be limited to 100 litres of petrol a month.

As frustration mounted, at least eight Tehran petrol stations were torched in impromptu anti-regime protests and scuffles with riot police. There were unconfirmed reports that mobs then attacked shops and banks.

"They rolled a burning tyre into the forecourt and set light to everything," said Shervin Fatahi, surveying the damage at one petrol station yesterday morning. "People were so frustrated because they were fighting for hours to fill their tanks and it added to general feelings of frustration young people have here anyway."

Capping petrol use is a high risk move for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of his promises to return oil money to the people, but excessive demand is damaging the economy and high imports leave Iran vulnerable to Western pressure.

Economists and political analysts have long urged the government to limit consumption or raise petrol prices, as lavish subsidies encouraged overuse and smuggling. And because Iran lacks refining capacity, about 40 per cent of its petrol is imported at international market prices, far higher than the 5 pence a litre charged at the pumps. Some estimates have put the cost of Iran's fuel subsidy and import policy at more than £5bn.

Reliance on foreign petrol has also grown politically sensitive in the past year as Western countries tried to put economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. Two mild sanctions resolutions have been passed, while direct political pressure has discouraged investment. Overhauling refineries has become harder and some policy hawks have argued for a ban on petrol sales to the Islamic republic.

Iran has responded to the confrontation by moving to a virtual war footing, clamping down on domestic dissent and taking steps to inoculate its economy against the effects of a possible embargo or military attack. But for a president whose economic plans have been populist, rationing is a dangerous policy. Many Iranians see cheap, unlimited petrol as proof their government is returning mineral wealth to the people.

"Ahmadinejad? Ahmaqinejad more like," quipped a young man outside a petrol station, punning on the Persian word for "stupid". His friends grumbled only three hours notice had been given - a move apparently designed to thwart hoarding and prevent the a repeat of the long queues when rationing was originally expected in May.

But while many motorists were angered, others accepted it as a long overdue necessity and hoped the state would put cash into public transport instead. "Rationing is actually a good move," said Mr Fatahi. "But it has been handled quite badly. This country is always very good at crisis management but it seems so bad at forward planning."

The effects were already being felt yesterday, as Tehran traffic dipped to holiday levels. Long lines persisted outside petrol stations, as motorists sought to secure as much of their monthly quota as possible. Police supervised the queues in an attempt to prevent any further violence.

"I'm really unhappy, I queued all last night and for over an hour today," said Behnooz Afshar, sitting with her husband and children in a two-kilometre line for petrol. "We're going to have to travel less and it'll be hard taking the kids to school."

Unofficial taxi drivers, who charge each passenger a few pennies along set routes, will be hurt most. Many Tehranis make up inadequate income from other jobs this way but the fuel limits will drive up prices. "I haven't put the fares up yet, but I will have to soon," said one.

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