Protesters, apparently including many shop owners, clashed with riot police Wednesday in the area around Tehran’s foreign-exchange markets in what experts described as the most significant Iranian protests since the popular uprising in 2010.
Police deployed tear gas to disperse crowds and closed off neighboring streets, and in an apparent bid to prevent any spread of unrest, the government deployed satellite jamming to block TV networks, including the BBC, from airing in the country.
There were conflicting reports on the initial cause of the unrest, with some news reports from Tehran suggesting it was sparked after security forces attempted to close foreign exchange traders in the bazaar.
The clashes came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged that Western sanctions were exacerbating the country’s economic problems and urged Iranians not to exchange their rials for foreign currencies, saying that doing so would further the “hidden war” against the country.
U.S. officials said the Iranian currency crisis reflected the combined consequences of fiscal mismanagement by the country’s government and economic sanctions imposed to force Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program. The value of the rial has fallen roughly 60 percent over the past year but about 30 percent over the past three weeks.
Asked about the fall of the rial Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said sanctions could be reconsidered if Iran moves to cooperate with the West.
“They have made their own government decisions — having nothing to do with the sanctions — that have had an impact on the economic conditions inside of the country,” Clinton said.
“Of course, the sanctions have had an impact as well, but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian government were willing to work with the . . . international community in a sincere manner,” she said.
Analysts said the currency weakness spells serious political problems for the Iranian government.
“These are the biggest demonstrations we have seen in Iran since 2010,” said Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It’s a reflection of pent-up frustration and anger with the economic problems of the country, which have gotten worse, particularly since the European sanctions came into effect in the summer.”
While the Obama administration has steadily imposed more severe economic sanctions on Iran, a European ban against Iranian oil imports did not take effect in July.
The European Union is meeting again later this month to debate further refining of the sanctions, which a European official says is likely to involve tightened measures against Iran’s financial and energy sectors.