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Critics Spoil Iranian Government's Food-Aid Initiative

Iranians line up to receive food supplies in southern Tehran. Three people reportedly died while waiting in line in freezing temperatures, and hard-liners have alleged that the sight of citizens lining up for handouts is damaging to Iran's image abroad.
A well-intended initiative to feed the needy has backfired on Iran's president.

Braving heavy snow amid a bitter cold snap, low-income Iranians across the country lined up this week outside state-owned stores to receive free food packages.

But the effort, which was launched on February 2, has drawn enough criticism to warrant a rare public apology from President Hassan Rohani.

Three people reportedly died while waiting in line in freezing temperatures, and hard-liners have alleged that the sight of citizens lining up for handouts is damaging to Iran's image abroad.

Addressing the controversy, Rohani told state television on February 6 that he, as president, "expresses regret if people have faced trouble in receiving the commodity basket."

Low-income families, meaning those whose monthly income is below $170, qualify for the food basket, which contains rice, poultry, cheese, eggs, and cooking oil.

Many Iranians -- politicians and ordinary citizens alike -- have welcomed the relief. But almost as soon as the effort kicked off, complaints were raised about the quality of the food, the way it's being delivered, and eligibility requirements that leave those who are just above the income requirements with no relief.

Conservative lawmaker Ghasem Jaafari singled out photos of needy Iranians in the media as particularly troublesome. "I think we need to take more serious measure here, because the long lines of people waiting to get a miserable amount of free food have become a source of amusement to our enemies," he said.

The state body in charge of food-aid distribution has called on politicians and others not to rush to criticize the government initiative, calling it an important, positive step.

Change For Ordinary Iranians

Upon taking office in August 2013, Rohani's government inherited high inflation and unemployment rates from the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was accused of mismanaging the country's economy.

According to official figures, inflation stands at around 40 percent, and unemployment estimates run as high as 12 percent.

Rohani has set about trying to deliver on election promises to improve people's lives, create jobs, and end crippling international sanctions imposed over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

His relative openness has widely been credited with helping bring about an interim nuclear deal with world powers that relaxes sanctions and will free up some Iranian funds frozen by the United States.

After inking the agreement in November, a presidential statement said the Iranian people would soon see the benefits. But his negotiation efforts have been criticized by hard-liners who feel Rohani is giving up too much.

Jaleh Wafa, an Iranian journalist who specializes on economic issues, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the distribution of food aid may have been aimed at improving the government's image among average citizens. "I think this initiative is important for government for propaganda purposes, to show it is handing out free food baskets to people despite the budget deficit the government is facing," he explains.

However, Wafa notes, "the sheer number of people" who are eligible for the food aid -- nearly 20 percent of the population -- could be problematic because it provides a window into the economic struggles Iran faces. "In a country with vast oil and gas resources, millions of people are desperate for food aid," he says. "It shows government policies are not correct."

Fars news agency quoted one Iranian man lining up for food as saying: "We have all become beggars and knock on the government's door for free food. It looks bad."

The duration of the operation is expected to be prolonged if the estimated 15 million Iranians -- out of a population of about 80 million -- who are eligible for relief don't receive it in time.

Rohani has promised that a second relief package will be provided before the end of the Iranian year, on March 21.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Javad Koorushi and Iranian media
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.