TEHRAN, Iran -- A quota imposed on the purchase of subsidized gasoline sent Iranians into the streets yesterday, where they torched at least 12 gas stations, damaged government-owned banks and department stores and shouted slogans against the president, Iranian news agencies and witnesses reported.
To limit rapidly increasing consumption of gasoline, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began enforcing a rationing program yesterday that limits most motorists to 26.4 gallons a month at the subsidized price of 42 cents per gallon.
Although Iran possesses huge reserves of crude oil and natural gas, it lacks enough refineries, forcing this energy-hungry country to import more than $4 billion of refined petroleum a year. Last year, Ahmadinejad's government proposed a complicated gas-rationing system, but it was delayed this year amid public fury and technical problems. In March, the government raised the price of the subsidized gas 25 percent.
But despite worries voiced by supreme leader Ali Khamenei and security officials, Ahmadinejad's government revived the plan this week, putting it into effect with only two hours' notice.
"We live on an ocean of oil," said Kambiz Rahmati, 25, an electronics engineer working in a computer market in Tehran. "Why should we pay a high price for gasoline or suffer rationing?"
State-controlled television announced the plan late Tuesday night, sending masses of people into the streets. Motorists honking their horns in protest rushed to fill up in the hours before the plan went into effect. Crowds gathered, and at midnight melees erupted. Angry mobs in the capital set gas stations afire. A spokesman for the fire department told the daily World of Industry newspaper that 21 gas stations were torched. Others said at least a dozen were burned.
Witnesses said demonstrators chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad. Scuffles broke out between pro-government Basiji militiamen and the protesters. Rioters smashed windows of stores and government banks.
Officials branded the demonstrators "hooligans" and said about 80 had been arrested.
"I saw a looter carrying a television set on his shoulder from a shopping mall," said Nasser Eimani, a resident of Tehran. "A Basiji intercepted him and a fight broke out."
Scenes of the burned gas stations appeared on national television, although the Supreme National Security Council ordered newspapers not to publish "provocative" photos or articles about the unrest.
Some experts speculated that the rioting was organized by leaders of smuggling rings that sell subsidized fuel to other Persian Gulf countries for huge profits. Others attributed the unrest to broader frustrations with Ahmadinejad's economic policies and the effects of economic sanctions.
Under the rationing plan, Iranians will be able to buy fuel above the quota but at much higher prices that will be announced later in the year, officials said.
Critics see the government's actions as symptomatic of what they call administrative incompetence and lack of foresight.
"This is the result of enormous mismanagement," said Michel Makinsky, an Iran specialist at the Poitiers School of Business and Management, in southern France. "They did not devote enough money [to] investing in refineries. They have inherited a situation which is now becoming critical."
Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.