As the fate of Iran’s nuclear talks and its economy remain uncertain, a 95-year-old ayatollah has warned that the government’s ability to prevent hunger is limited.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, who is in the list of Iranian politicians sanctioned by the US, has spoken about the approaching Iranian New Year on March 20 and warned that “It would be a miracle if we can fill the people’s bellies.”

Jannati was echoing President Ebrahim Raisi’s call two days ago when he said the government should lift everyone from poverty in the two weeks remaining to the New Year.

The comment led to a lot of ridicule on social media by Iranians who said the Islamic Republic has plunged millions into poverty over the years and now the president wants to eliminate poverty in two weeks.

Jannati and other senior clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to constitutional bodies that control decisions and elections are seen as responsible for electoral manipulations that have narrowed popular choice even further in the past two years.

The Guardian Council in charge of vetting candidates for elections, eliminated all serious challengers to Ebrahim Raisi last June, making it all but certain that Khamenei’s choice for the post could breeze through, albeit in an election with the lowest turnout.

As Jannati called for bread for the people on the eve of the New Year, the parliament decided to hand out 1.3 million barrels of oil to government entities and individuals to export as they see fit, without a clear mechanism of accountability.

Afteb News, a Tehran website somewhat critical of the government published the headline, “Raisi’s Help to Economic Mafia” on Tuesday. It said the decision to allow various ministries and departments to enter the oil business creates the danger of massive corruption, enriching the “economic mafia” of regime insiders.

Iran’s oil and gas reserves belong to the state and the Iranian National Oil Company has always been the sole proprietor managing production and exports, even before the 1979 revolution. In the past three decades some of its operations have been ceded or leased to ‘private operators’ that are mainly quasi-state, semi-private entities owned and run by regime insiders, notably by the Revolutionary Guard.

Overall annual inflation has been hovering around 40 percent and food prices have risen much faster. Just over the weekend, the parliament eliminated a $9 billion subsidy for food imports, which will drive prices even higher local media and economists warn.

Amid these hard circumstances, the public hopes that a nuclear agreement will be reached with the United States, which can lift sanctions and at least marginally improve their livelihoods. Negotiations to restore a 2015 nuclear agreement have been going on for almost a year, so far without a result, except diplomats heralding progress on daily basis.

Raisi who assumed office last August made generous promises to the people to resolve the economic crisis with or without US sanctions. Seven months later there is little improvement, except more oil exports to China without any visible financial improvement in the government’s huge budget deficit or higher salaries for tens of millions of citizens, whose purchasing power has been wiped out by inflation.

Pundits have been warning of a social explosion in the coming months if there is no tangible improvement. So far, people from different professions including teachers have been holding protests with an increasing antigovernment mood.

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