Iran Judiciary Detains Spokesperson for Revealing Gasoline Rationing Plan

May 5, 2019 – The Iranian authorities arrested Ziba Esmaili, the spokesperson for the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company (NIORDC), on May 5 for announcing a plan by the Oil Ministry to ration gasoline. The Tehran Prosecutor’s Office released Ms. Esmaili the following day, after she posted bail. NIORDC operates under the auspices of the Oil Ministry.

Esmaili was not the source of the leaked information. A week earlier, the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies had reported on the government’s gasoline rationing plan to be rolled out on May 2. The news had caused long lines at gas stations around the country. Many people had taken to social media to express their outrage and anger at the government.

President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet was quick to deny the reports by Fars and Tasnim. It also blamed Esmaili for announcing the plan without first consulting the relevant government agencies. However, it soon became clear that the two news agencies had received their information from the Oil Ministry.

Meanwhile, Fars published a retraction saying that “new evidence shows that previous reports about the gasoline rationing plan were not entirely accurate!”

“If it had been a reformist newspaper that had reported the gasoline rationing scheme, authorities would have shut it down immediately,” Azam Visme, an Iranian journalist tweeted. “However, different rules apply to Tasnim and Fars. They [authorities] instead arrested the spokesperson who had probably been given the green light to break the news.”

Many people on social media have accused the government of using Esmaili as a scapegoat. They argue that Mr. Rouhani and his cabinet had decided against their gasoline rationing plan after facing fierce public criticism.

Iraj Jamshidi @jamshidiiraj1 tweeted: “The government would have implemented the scheme if Ms. Esmaili — who previously worked as a journalist for the Fars news agency and the Mardomsalari newspaper — had waited a day before releasing the news. She inadvertently made the public aware of the consequences of the scheme, including a massive rise in the price of gasoline.” View image on Twitter

Another social media user @neda77600 wrote: “The Gasoline rationing plan was so controversial that the government publicized the arrest of the person who spread the rumor.”

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh told reporters back in January: “We need to either raise the price of gasoline or ration it.” 

When asked by a reporter how high gas prices might climb to, Mr. Zanganeh replied: “As high as people can endure!”

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]