Long lines for subsidized food stir controversy in Iran

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Images of Iranians standing in long lines to receive government-subsidized food have led to criticism by the domestic Iranian media both for the program’s planned and the message it sends to the world about the state of Iran’s domestic situation.

The food-subsidy handouts, which were approved by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, were designed to replace in part the cash subsidies implemented under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The plan has been criticized by some as revoking the spending discretion of the poorer classes and deemed inefficient. The public manner in which the handout was managed and the long lines that resulted in scuffles were also seen as humiliating and demeaning toward the lower economic classes.

The controversy over the food handouts began almost immediately when, one day before the plan was to take effect, a Ministry of Commerce official announced the new income limits of 500,000 toman ($170) per month for eligibility, depriving roughly 4 million people of subsidies. Reformist Arman Daily wrote that this new condition fueled rumors that “The administration is trying to eliminate the laws of the targeted subsidies and does not believe in expert work in this field.”

According to Arman, more controversy has erupted over accusations that many individuals who make more than the income limit have gained access to the food subsidies due to poor calculations in estimated salaries. The article stated, “The first step of the administration in implementing the targeted subsidies brought about the criticism of experts, [and] the poor and unprincipled distribution of the basket of food gives Rouhani’s economic team a poor grade.”

Conservative and hard-line media were much more critical of the manner in which Rouhani’s administration handled the food-subsidy program.

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Raja News reported that the first issue in the food-distribution plan was “the absence of the dignity and honor of the people,” calling the distribution system “discriminatory” and liable to create friction in society because “13 million laborers who are covered by Social Security were deprived of these goods” while members of parliament qualified to receive the subsidies.

Jahan News also reported that members of the Tehran city council and other Reformists who are “friends of [former President] Mohammad Khatami” received the food subsidies “thanks to the administration of hope and prudence.”

As the pictures of Iranians standing in line were shared widely online, Raja News noted that when lines for subsidies formed under Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani criticized him for “turning people into beggars.” Yet under Rouhani, who is seen as politically close to Rafsanjani, there is a lack of criticism.

Raja questioned whether Rouhani’s administration “has the courage to apologize to the people” for the way it handled the distribution of food and wondered if the media outlets sympathetic to the Rouhani administration would “censor” this criticism.

Fars News interviewed individuals waiting in the long lines outside stores and reported complaints about the lack of information. An op-ed suggested that long lines for rice, chicken and eggs “damages the public image of the country internationally.” The op-ed criticized that while the United States claims that sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiation table, the “executive branch is creating documentation for these claims by creating lines for rice and chicken.”

The administration’s Islamic Republic News Agency reported today that the administration is trying to “eliminate the technical” problems in the food-distribution program.

Editor’s Note: This post originally incorrectly stated that the new income eligibility limits for food subsidy handouts were $1,700 per month instead of the correct figure of $170 per month. This has been corrected.