Riot police clash with demonstrators and foreign exchange dealers in Tehran over the collapse of the Iranian currency, which has lost 40 per cent of its value against the dollar in a week.
Protesters shouted slogans against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying his economic policies had fuelled the economic crisis, after the rial hit a series of record lows against the US dollar.
Police have responded by firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, according to witnesses.
Iran’s economic woes have been linked to to western economic sanctions imposed over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. These have slashed Iran’s export earnings from oil, undermining the central bank’s ability to support the currency.
Panicking Iranians have scrambled to buy hard foreign currencies, pushing down the rial. With Iran’s official inflation rate at around 25 per cent, the currency’s weakness is hurting living standards and threatening jobs.
The government has blamed speculators for the rial’s collapse and ordered the security services to take action against them.
“Everyone wants to buy dollars and it’s clear there’s a bit of a bank run,” said a western diplomat based in Tehran.
“Ahmadinejad’s announcement of using police against exchangers and speculators didn’t help at all. Now people are even more worried.”
Close watchers of Iran say the protests pose a threat to Ahmadinejad rather than the government, but his term will end in June when a presidential election is due and he cannot run for a third time.
They expect the government to stop the foreign exchange dealings and pump in money to stabilise the currency and prevent the protests from spreading.
Tehran’s main bazaar, whose merchants played a major role in Iran’s revolution in 1979, was closed on Wednesday, witnesses said. A shopkeeper who sells household goods there told Reuters that the instability of the rial was preventing merchants from quoting accurate prices.
The protests centred around the bazaar and spread, according to the opposition website Kaleme, to Imam Khomeini Square and Ferdowsi Avenue scene of bloody protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009.
The rial has lost about two-thirds of its value since June 2011. Its losses accelerated in the past week after the government launched an “exchange centre” to supply dollars to importers of basic goods; businessmen say the centre failed to meet demand for dollars.
The rial’s slide suggested the Western sanctions were having a serious impact. On Sunday, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Iran’s economy was “on the verge of collapse”.
Ahmadinejad on Tuesday blamed the crisis on the US-led economic sanctions on Iran and insisted the country could ride out the crisis. He urged Iranians not to change their money for dollars and said security forces should act against 22 “ringleaders” in the currency market.
But many businessmen and ordinary citizens say the government is at least partly to blame for the currency crisis, and Ahmadinejad has been criticised by enemies in parliament.
University students protested in front of parliament on Monday over a lack of government-subsidised dollars for their studies abroad, the Iranian Labour News Agency reported.
The impact of sanctions on Iran can be seen across the Gulf in Dubai, a major centre of trade with Iran.
At the Dubai Creek, a crowded waterway from which motorised dhows ship goods to Iran, merchants said Iranian business had fallen off dramatically in the last two weeks.
“Everyone is losing; traders from Iran are losing because of the depreciating rial, and we’re losing here because Iranians can’t afford to buy our products any more,” said Ahmed Mohammed Amin an Iranian trader who has lived in Dubai for 40 years.
Websites providing rates for the rial stopped updating on Tuesday, and Dubai money changers said they were not selling the rial because they had lost contact with their Tehran counterparts.