Iran’s parliament on Sunday decided to scrap an annual $9 billion subsidy for essential food and medicines, despite warnings of more inflation and hardship.
The idea to eliminate the subsidy emerged after hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi (Raeesi) assumed office in August and could count on backing from conservatives and ultra-conservatives in control of Iran’s parliament.
The subsidy was introduced in April 2018 when former US president Donald Trump signaled his intention to withdraw from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran known as JCPOA, and Iran’s national currency began to nosedive. Prices for imported goods skyrocketed and the government decided to provide cheap dollars to importers of essential goods to keep prices low.
But the measure proved to be controversial as reports emerged of large-scale corruption. Many entities applied to receive the cheap dollars for importing food, animal feed and other essential goods but ended up importing luxury cars or nothing at all. Some have charged that billions of dollars went to waste at a time when US sanctions slashed Iran’s foreign currency revenues, making US dollars crucial for the survival of the economy.
Hardliners picked up the banner of opposition to the subsidy, also as a weapon against centrist president Hassan Rouhani. Once they formed a majority in parliament in 2020 and took the presidency in 2021, they made it a priority to scrap the indirect subsidy.
However, it was not an easy decision to make. Annual inflation has been hovering around 40 percent for more than a year and food prices have risen much faster than that. Consumption of many food items such as meat and fruits have sharply declined as the impoverished middle calls had to slash spending amid declining purchasing power.
Politicians and reportedly security agencies have been concerned that eliminating the subsidies, with no prospect of lower inflation, would lead to political unrest, endangering the entire regime.
The danger could not be underestimated. A hike in gasoline prices in November 2019 led to serious nationwide unrest with authorities deciding to use brute force to suppress protesters. Security forces were ordered to shoot live ammunition, killing hundreds of unarmed people.
Perhaps for this reason the parliament itself did not vote to eliminate the subsidy, rather it agreed to allow the presidential administration to do as it wants. Some Iranian newspapers said the legislature decided to pass on the buck to the government.
But this is not the end of massive subsidies the state provides to consumers. While the 9 billion dollars was a heavy burden on the government’s budget of around $40 billion, Iran provides massive energy subsidies, which are called “hidden subsidies.” These take the form of cheap gasoline, electricity and gas, which are regarded as domestic resources, offered to an underpaid population, much like the old Soviet system, where housing and energy were cheap, but people earned small salaries compared with their counterparts in many other countries.
The energy subsidies were estimated to total around $60 billion annually before the Iranian currency lost its value against the US dollar. The Raisi government would love to eliminate these subsidies too and they have started reducing the gasoline subsidy on an experimental bases in the free trade zone on Kish Island. By raising prices, the government will earn around $5 billion more annually.
Currently a gallon of rationed gasoline sold by the government is around 22 US cents, while unrestricted gasoline is 44 cents. This is multiple times cheaper that the going rates in other Persian Gulf oil producing countries.
Eliminating these subsidies will lift a drag on the economy, but the question is that it might backfire amid high inflation when people have lost so much of their purchasing power.