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Monday 10 February 2014
A SCHEME to help Iran’s poorest has embarrassed President Hassan Rohani. On February 2nd, the government began distributing long-promised food packages to help struggling Iranians. But bad planning caused it to go wrong, triggering a local outcry and denting the president's popularity.
First, there was confusion over who would receive aid. Initially, the government announced that the food packages of rice, chicken, eggs, oil and cheese, worth 800,000 rial ($32), would be offered to up to 17m citizens, including workers, the retired, married students and clergymen.
But a day before the distribution started, the government declared that only citizens earning less than 5m rial ($200) per month would qualify. Then, in an echo of the glitches that plagued Obama’s healthcare scheme, the websites for people to check their eligibility didn't work.
All over Tehran, the capital, and in cities across the country, Iranians queued for hours in sub-zero temperatures, only to be told they did not qualify for help. Local media published photos of people fighting over food, and, rather sensationally, compared the situation to North Korea. State media reported that two people had died from the cold.
Until now, the Iranian government has maintained popularity at home, having delivered on its promise to break the international deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. But this blunder has hurt the poorest Iranians, who have yet to feel any relief from the past years’ economic woes, which are partly caused by Western sanctions. Local economists reckon inflation is as high as 100% in rural areas.
The spectacle has publicly embarrassed the government in the eyes of the middle and upper class too. Many took to social media to complain that it was undignified to see Iranians line up to prove their poverty to the authorities. Hamid Rasaei, an MP, called the food aid a "beggar-raising method". Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, a prominent conservative, demanded that the government make speedy changes to the method of distribution. Uncharacteristically for an Iranian president, Mr Rohani apologised in a televised address.
Criticism came for other reasons, too. Some economists questioned whether the Iranian government can afford to be so generous. Qasem Jafari, a parliamentarian, reckons food aid has added further to Iran’s already soaring budget deficit, which is expected to hit 500 trillion rials ($20 billion) in the coming year. But it is difficult to dismantle the subsidies. The former administration removed them from basic goods and services, but replaced them with monthly cash payments.