FURIOUS Iranians set fire to 19 petrol stations in Tehran yesterday, as violence erupted after fuel rationing was imposed with just three hours' notice.
The protests were the first such widespread outpouring of anger since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, was swept to power two years ago, promising to put the country's "oil income on people's tables".
There were chaotic scenes at filling stations across the country as people rushed to fill up, blaring their horns in frustration as long queues developed. Police were also out in force, braced for the worst.
In one part of the sprawling capital of 12 million people, angry youths pelted police with stones and chanted: "Guns, fireworks, tanks, Ahmadinejad should be killed."
Reza Khorrami, 27, a teacher, fumed as he sat in a long queue outside a petrol station. "This man, Ahmadinejad, has damaged all things," he said. "The timing of the rationing is just one case."
The rationing is Iran's most controversial economic reform since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and spells trouble for the president. Despite high oil prices, he has failed to raise living standards, while inflation and unemployment have risen on his watch. Some economists fear rationing fuel may only stoke inflation, hurting the poor more.
Under the plan, owners of private cars can buy only 100 litres a month at the subsidised price of 1,000 riyals (5.5p) a litre - still the cheapest in the world. But the daily quota of three litres is a paltry amount in a city as huge as Tehran, which has poor public transport. Rationing is to continue for at least four months and possibly six months.
Such a move has long been deemed economically essential to cut down on costly fuel imports. But the regime's stand-off with the international community over Iran's uranium enrichment programme means there are now also compelling strategic and security reasons for reducing Tehran's dependence on imported fuel. Petrol consumption in Iran far outstrips the capacity of its refineries, and it spends billions of pounds importing about 40 per cent of its needs at international prices. This is sold on to motorists at heavily subsidised prices that are largely responsible for Iran's large budget deficit.
The United States, which is leading the pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, has said Tehran's fuel imports are a point of "leverage", and some Iranian economists believe sanctions on petrol imports could cripple the system within 48 hours.
In addition, the regime will be concerned that yesterday's spontaneous unrest could serve as a catalyst that sets off wider protests over a host of other economic, political and social concerns.
Mr Ahmadinejad's government is in the middle of one of the most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years. Since April, thousands of young Iranians have been detained for "immoral behaviour" as the Islamic dress code is enforced. There has also been a campaign to purge universities of liberal ideas in what some analysts have described as a second cultural revolution.
The regime's recent strongarm tactics should help prevent unrest over petrol rationing spreading, however.
Nevertheless, as the violence over rationing erupted, some reformist MPs were urgently drafting a bill to halt rationing and there were reports that parliament may postpone its summer recess to deal with the crisis.
250,000 LITRES WASTED DAILY
IRAN is the world's fourth biggest oil producer of crude oil and OPEC's number two exporter, but has to import about 40 per cent of its petrol because of a shortage of refining capacity.
It's 8.5 million cars - many of them old, locally-made Peykans based on the extinct Hillman Hunter - use around the same amount of petrol a day as the 35 million cars on British roads.
Petrol at subsidised rates costs 5.5 British pence a litre. Private motorists are now limited to 100 litres a month at that price. Cheap petrol encourages wastefulness: a quarter of a million litres of petrol are splashed on to filling station floors daily by careless motorists.
Iran is now pushing ahead with a 6.5 billion refinery expansion programme to make it self-sufficient in petrol.