RFL/RE – With some Iranians still hopping mad about state spending on religious institutions and foreign military ventures, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has green-lighted the siphoning of $2.5 billion from a currency-reserve fund to boost military spending.
The announcement follows by less than two weeks an official clampdown on street protests over rising prices and other economic grievances that spread to more than 90 cities, according to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
Public anger had been stoked in December by price hikes but also word of a draft government budget that earmarked major funding for religious institutions and the clerically dominated country’s armed forces.
The December-January protests have heightened scrutiny on state spending, underscored by frustration among Iranians when a gold-plated “Koran ship” was unveiled earlier this month.
On January 24, parliamentary budget-commission member Asghar Yousefnejad said the surprise defense outlay is part of a $4 billion redirection from the Iranian National Development Fund (INDF) ordered by Khamenei, who holds the final say on all political and religious matters in Iran.
Yousefnejad was quoted by domestic media as saying that the rest of the cash will be used to fund projects related to dust pollution, water irrigation and management, and reconstruction of quake-hit and flood-stricken areas. Some $150 million was said to be headed to state TV, which many Iranians criticized for spreading misinformation and offering biased news coverage during the unrest.
President Hassan Rohani was reelected last year in a race dominated by pledges to create jobs in a country where national unemployment was reportedly around 12 percent last year, but more like 30 percent among young people.
He and other officials hinted that a 2015 deal with world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of many sanctions might boost Iran’s economic fortunes, but it is not clear that average Iranians have seen any tangible benefits.
Thousands of Iranians were detained at protests or in security sweeps and at least 22 people were said to have died during the recent turmoil, the country’s biggest manifestation of popular anger since millions took to the streets over the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Many protest chants singled out state support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and militant groups in the Middle East and called on Iranian leaders to focus on Iranians instead.
The Rohani government’s draft budget that emerged in December outlined cuts in subsidies while it increased funds for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and religious institutions.
The Financial Times reported earlier this month that since Rohani’s rise to the presidency in 2013, defense spending in the budget has increased by 18 percent and allocations for religious institutions — including Islamic propagation offices and seminaries — have risen by 26 percent.
Iranians recently used the Farsi equivalent of hashtag #Gilded_Koran to question the wisdom of spending state money on a gold-plated replica ship inscribed with the text of the Koran. Some reports later suggested the artist behind that work, which was reportedly to be donated to a major Shi’ite shrine in neighboring Iraq, had personally covered its cost.