Draining Iran's Treasury
by REIHANEH MAZAHERI in Paris
20 Apr 2010 19:49
This second installment follows the author's report (Part 1) on Ahmadinejad's cultural budget.
Since 2006, a large portion of the national cultural budget has been diverted to religious foundations and especially the Basij (militia) groups.
Although no accurate data on the number of Iranian mosques has ever been available, according to a political finance expert in Tehran, about 6,000 such centers were established between 2005 and 2009. These actions, taken during Ahmadinejad's first term, paid off during last year's post-election protests -- the suppression of the demonstrators was handled in large part by members of nongovernmental religious establishments such as mosques and the Basij groups they host.
It is not a secret that, well before he first became president, Ahmadinejad had initiated his financial support for the religious forces that he would later employ. One publicly known instance is his 2004 donation of 11 billion tomans ($1.5 million, in 2009 terms) to the types of organizations I have referred to in my articles.
This sort of financial support accelerated during his first term in office, via the government's budget rather than private patronage. One example is the backing provided to the High Council of Religious Studies Center of Qom, the hozeh, which controls and manages the nation's main clerical base. When Khatami handed the presidency to Ahmadinejad in 2005, the budget for the hozeh was 23 billion tomans. By last year, it had risen to 180 billion tomans, a fourfold increase even after a generous allowance for inflation.
Another example is the sprawling Organization of Islamic Propaganda. This agency operates under the auspices of the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One of its primary tasks is the arrangement and management of all pro-government demonstrations. It showed its full capability on December 30, only three days after the bloody Ashura anti-government demonstrations, when it delivered onto the streets of Tehran a mass of demonstrators supportive of the regime. There are no exact data regarding its total budget, but according to the official news agency of the Islamic Republic, government contributions to it increased by 73 percent between the past two fiscal years. For perspective, we can point to the publicly known portion of the organization's budget, which has tripled in size since the end of the last Reformist government, five years ago, when it was just below 150 billion tomans.
The current government has allocated many obscure budget items each year for the "expansion of religious culture," which are destined for such organizations. These items have been difficult to trace and pin down, at least so far. Although the increased outlay for religious foundations in the national budget this fiscal year faced some criticism, Ahmadinejad did not retreat on the issue. Thus, a large share of the fiscal 2010-11 budget devoted to culture will be allocated to "special" foundations, such as religious centers.
The government's attempts, over the last four years, to garner more popular support by exploiting emotional religious fervor does not seem to have been very successful. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad and his retinue continue to allocate a major part of the national budget to religious foundations, as well to as install and nurture supporters in the country's cultural institutions.
This year, the budget of mosque-based organizations, the government's essential base of popular support, has been increased to 25 billion tomans ($25 million). According to Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harrandi, minister of Islamic guidance under the previous Reformist administration, the comparable 2004 budget was only 1.6 billion tomans (about 3 billion tomans adjusted for inflation). These centers often serve as bases for the local Basij, which carry out the government's religious agenda.
A Tehran-based specialist in religious issues points to the increase in the number of government's detractors and says that, while the government has tried to attract and absorb young people into religious foundations and establishments, prompting the large budget allocations, it has largely failed. In the aftermath of the election, we were witness to a remarkable level of participation by the youth in protests against the government, and even the religious establishment.
Despite Ahmadinejad's claim that the budget he has submitted to the Majles (parliament) for fiscal year 1389 (2010‒11) offers unprecedented support for cultural endeavors, a glance at line items in the allocations charts shows that most have been earmarked for religious and military-related institutions, rather than actual cultural groups. Of course, these actions are not unique to this year's budget. Since 1384 (2005), the government has increased the budget allocations for religious foundations at much higher rates than any previous government.
It is on this basis that the corruption case against Mohamad Reza Rahimi, first deputy to Ahmadinejad, is under investigation in both the legislative and judiciary branches. In a prayer session in Qom, he declared that such criticism would only strengthen the ties between the government and the hozeh. Defending Ahmadinejad's actions, he pointed to the government's financial support for the hozeh.
In reaction to clerical complaints during his early years in the presidency, Ahmadinejad had encouraged the hozeh to accept official financial support: "The government and the treasury should not distance itself from the responsibility of expanding Islamic culture...." In March 2007, at a convention of the clergy and religious scholars of Fars Province, he expounded on the government's financial backing of religious centers and took aim at the critics of such supports. "From early on after the Revolution," he said, "one of a few perverse issues on the agenda, which were discussed in full openness, was that the government should not provide financial support to religious centers, as they might into organs of the government. But I think this is a wrong belief. How could it be possible for an Islamic government to separate itself from the hozeh?"
It was on this basis that Ahmadinejad's government allocated 11 billion tomans ($20 million, adjusted for inflation) in his first term to initiate the recruitment, training, and deployment of a cadre of clergy and evangelists. Next to this budget item, there is another called "Qu'ranic budget" that provides for printing Qu'rans and supporting cantors. The amount allocated to this once minor religious line item grew exponentially. According to Mohamad Hosseini, the Qu'ranic budget in 2005 was the 2009 equivalent of $1 million; under Ahmadinejad, the actual 2009 Qu'ranic budget was $15 million.
During the same period, Ahmadinejad's government focused its attention on mosques, repeatedly declaring them the fundamental base of its support. Again, according to Mohamad Hosseini, it was on this basis that over $10 million was allocated to construction and renovation of mosques during 2007-8. This type of expenditure had accelerated dramatically in 2007 with the provision of a $1 million loan for the construction of Tehran Mahdieh. According to the governor of Qom, much of the $2 million in government funds allocated to the Jamkaran mosque was used to expand nearby parking facilities.
This governmental largess is driven by the fact that a substantial proportion of each mosque's budget goes to the Basij stationed there. The militia is tasked with identifying and confronting local opponents of the regime.
An economics expert in Tehran points out that during Ahmadinajad's first term, defense and military expenditures were always the highest priority in budget proposals, followed by allocations for religious foundations. Education, health, and welfare routinely ranked at the bottom. This expert, comparing the budgets from the first and last years of Ahmadijad's initial term, reports on one very telling line item. Ayatollah Khamenei's budget for travel to Mashhad, the religious center in the eastern province of Khorasan, increased over 150-fold, adjusted for inflation, from less than $100,000 to more than $15 million. The expert believes that the Supreme Leader's unwavering support for Ahmadinejad in the tumultuous days after the election was due to the extent of support for religious groups and activities in the budget.*
Although the Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are usually referred to as security and military organizations, adjunct to the official forces, their actions during the Ninth and now the Tenth governments of the Islamic Republic have consistently been directed toward the advancement of the government's internal policies.
Over the four years of the first Ahmadinejad administration, next to the budget items for specified organizations, there have been other items marked for building support for the notion of the Guardianship of the Jurist. It is not a mystery what the Revolutionary Guards' weekly publication, Sobhe Sadeq (Sincere Daybreak), refers to when it talks about the essential role of the Basij in the establishment and launching of cultural and physical education centers in towns and villages.
According to a declaration in Sobhe Sadeq by Hossein Taeb, head of the Guards' intelligence bureau, the Basij's budget has increased by 200 percent since Ahmadinejad took office. He added that the military-related budget had decreased by 15 percent during each of the last five years of the Reformists' administration, resulting in unpaid obligations. These were mostly taken care of by budgetary amendments in 2005. The remainder, he wrote, was addressed through the increase of the groups' baseline budgets, made necessary, he said, because more than just military organizations, "they are active in the construction and establishment of cultural camps and other benevolent undertakings."
According to the details of the proposed 2004-5 budget, the final budget of the previous Reformist government, 79.4 billion tomans were allocated to the Basij directly. But in its review, the Majles, which was taken over by the hardliners in the elections of February and May 2004, added 100 billion tomans, so that in the first year of Ahmadinejad's administration the budget of the Basij more than doubled, to just over 172 billion tomans. The Ahmadinejad administration's first budget proposal requested an additional credit of 173 billion tomans for the Basij, but no exact accounting of the total direct budget allocations and loans to the militia has ever been released.
*Editor's note: It needs to be pointed out, especially to readers not familiar with the Iranian economy, that the figures discussed here may seem small compared to U.S. budget items. But the fact that construction and real estate tax revenues in Iran are a fraction of those in the United States indicates the value of the support the government is providing the religious establishment, all of whose properties, including income-producing agricultural lands, are legally free from tax.
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