Thomas Erdbrink and Kay Armin Serjoie report from Tehran for The Washington Post:
Iran’s parliament has warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that resentment is building over sharp increases in the price of natural gas, which has risen at least 10-fold on average in recent weeks, and that public protests could follow.
Official media have reported on crowds complaining in the offices of the National Iranian Gas Co. since a two-week national holiday ended April 4. In Tehran, many people are refusing to pay their bills.
“I will not pay. I cannot pay,” said Hossein Solati, who lives with his wife and three children on the outskirts of south Tehran. “This is beyond my means.” In addition to steeper costs for home-heating and cooking gas, Solati said, the price of fuel for his truck has also soared since the start of the year.
The price increases follow the implementation in December of a plan by the Ahmadinejad government to cut off state subsidies, forcing the prices of many staples, including gas, electricity and bread, to rise to market level.
Officials had sought to protect the poorest from steep gas-price increases by gradually increasing rates as the number of cubic meters used goes up, as well as offering regular cash handouts. But in Tehran, even some people in poor neighborhoods are reporting a jump in their latest bi-monthly bill from $20 to about $140.
The price hikes are potentially dangerous for the government, according to lawmakers and analysts, who say they could revitalize the grass-roots opposition movement that organized dozens of streets protests after Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009. The most recent protests, in January and February, appeared to shock some Iranian leaders, who had publicly announced that the movement was a spent force. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt this year have been attributed in part to high food prices.
Iran’s parliament, which faces elections next year, is now demanding that prices be lowered. “The people don’t have the ability to pay their utility bills, and the distributed cash subsidy is not enough,” Hamid Reza Katouzian, head of parliament’s Energy Commission, told the Shargh newspaper Saturday.