Iran’s Ayatollah warns 'thugs' as protests escalate over increase gas prices

Iran’s supreme leader on Sunday, commenting on widespread protests over the government’s decision to increase gasoline prices by 50 percent, denounced protesters who have attacked public property as “thugs.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments were carried live on state television. He said, “some lost their lives and some places were destroyed.”

He specifically targeted those aligned with the family of Iran’s late shah, who was ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq which has called for the overthrow of Iran’s government.

The Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talks to clerics in his Islamic thoughts class in Tehran, Iran.

The Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talks to clerics in his Islamic thoughts class in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by the people. This is what thugs do,” Khamenei said.

Khamenei ordered security forces “to implement their tasks” and for Iran’s citizens to keep clear of violent demonstrators.

The government has shut down internet access across the nation, making it difficult to gauge whether unrest that took place in a reported 100 cities and towns was continuing. Images published by state and semiofficial media showed images of burned gas stations and banks, torched vehicles and roadways littered with debris.

It remained to be seen how many people were arrested, injured or killed. Videos from the protests have shown some people gravely wounded.

A gas station that was burned during protests that followed officials' decision to raise gasoline prices, in Tehran, Iran.

A gas station that was burned during protests that followed officials' decision to raise gasoline prices, in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Students' News Agency via AP)

Attackers targeting a police station in the city of Kermanshah on Saturday killed an officer, according to the IRNA news agency. A lawmaker said another person was killed in a suburb of Tehran. Earlier, one man was reported killed Friday in Sirjan – about 500 miles southeast of Tehran.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said the “key perpetrators of the past two days’ riot have been identified and proper action is ongoing,” signaling a possible impending crackdown.

The Fars news agency put the total number of protesters at more than 87,000, saying demonstrators ransacked around 100 banks and stores. Law enforcement arrested some 1,000 people, Fars reported, citing security officials.

The protests have put renewed pressure on Iran’s government as it has struggled to overcome the U.S. sanctions that have strangled the economy since President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the controversial nuclear deal in May 2018.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement Sunday condemning the “lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators.”

“Tehran has fanatically pursued nuclear weapons and missile programs, and supported terrorism, turning a proud nation into another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches,” the statement read.

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While representing a political risk for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, the demonstrations also showed widespread anger among the Iranian people, who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial.

Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil deposits.

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Gasoline in the country has remained among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping 50 percent to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter. That’s 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon.

A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. has been $2.60 on average, by comparison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.