By Reihaneh Mazaheri, Paris (Source: Mianeh)
Budget funds earmarked for culture largely spent on institutions that back the president. The administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using state funds to spread its political and religious ideology and at the same time maintain powerful allies during times of turmoil, critics say.
Ahmadinejad's cartoon (source: 9th International Cartoon Biennial)
The authorities have set aside 4.5 billion of the 347 billion US dollar, 2010-11 budget, which took effect on March 21, for cultural matters - but much of it is spent on religious and culturally hardline institutions sympathetic to the administration.
Ever since first becoming president in 2005, Ahmadinejad has made a clear effort to defend religious groups and organisations to a degree previously unknown in the country.
He set out his thinking in a speech to clergy in southern Fars province in 2007, saying, "In the budget of previous administrations, no room was found for religious centres and religious matters. However, we have taken them into consideration in the budget."
The budget for "mosque centres", one of the government's main sources of popular support, has increased to 25 million dollars from 1.6 million in 2005 at the end of the term of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, according to Mohammad Hosseini, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance.
These centres are known to be bases for the basij militia, who use them as platforms from which to advance the government's political and religious agenda.
There are no exact figures for the number of mosque centres in Iran but according to an economist residing in Tehran, the government built 6,000 of them across the country between 2005 and 2008. By contrast, he said, the Khatami administration from 1997 to 2005 used a large chunk of the national budget to encourage cultural matters such as printing more books.
The number of titles published in 2005 was around 52,000 but this fell to about 45,000 in 2008.
The same economist said, "The government benefited from the support of religious institutions such as mosque centres during its crackdown after the June 12 presidential election."
Ahmadinejad began his financial support of religious institutions while he was mayor of Tehran, before becoming president. According to Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, in the year before he came to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad gave 1.1 million dollars toward religious organisations.
Another institution that has benefited from government assistance in recent years is the Showraye Aliy-e Howze Elmieh Qom, the High Council of Qom Seminary, which is in charge of managing and controlling the Iranian clergy's main city.
At the end of his presidential term, Khatami handed Ahmadinejad a 23 million dollar budget for this organisation, however, in the past four years it has increased to 180 million.
Another example is the budget for the gigantic Sazeman-e Tablighat-e Eslami, the Islamic Propaganda Organisation. This functions under the supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and one of its responsibilities is to orchestrate pro-government demonstrations.
It was this organisation that brought pro-government forces onto the streets of Tehran on December 30, three days after the opposition's protest on the feast of Ashura.
Its budget is thought to run to hundreds of millions of dollars and appears to be increasing since the Khatami era.
Other funds, both large and small, are allocated each year for the purpose of advancing religious culture, but the details are murky.
For example, the budget item "support for religious teachings, culture, and arts" was around two million dollars in 2006 but went up to 15 million in 2007.
The budget item "advancement plan for mosque cultural activities" also witnessed a fourfold increase during the same period from four million dollars to 17 million.
Similarly, the nine million dollar budget for "support and direction of cultural and religious activities" was quadrupled to 32 million.
In one of the budget tiers for 2010, around 90 million dollars has been put aside solely for religious centres such as Setad-e Amr be Marouf va Ney az Monkar. This governmental institution involves itself in all public, and at times private, spheres of life in order to ensure compliance with Islamic principles. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, its funding has increased by 28 per cent since last year.
The government also has a capital acquisition budget to help nongovernmental organisations purchase property. Two thirds of this budget of roughly 42 million dollars, which constitutes a 300 per cent increase since last year, is in the hands of pro-government religious centres.
For example, ten million dollars has been allocated to the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute which belongs to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. In a speech during post-election protests, this hardline cleric, who supports Ahmadinejad, equated obedience to the president with obedience to God.
The Ayandeh Roshan Institute will also get 1.2 million dollars from this budget. This organisation advances government messianic and apocalyptic ideology. It was founded with the help of Ahmadinejad while he was mayor of Tehran.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close friend and Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, was at one point on its board of directors.
In addition, the Ahmadinejad administration originally intended to control three per cent of the income of public firms of around 11 billion dollars in 2010-11 national budget under the pretext of assisting cultural, social, and sports affairs.
This money was supposed to be spent under the supervision of Rahim Mashaei, who also heads the government's cultural commission. However, parliamentary members concerned about the lack of transparency in how this money would be spent did not approve the plan.
These are the more overt examples of government favouritism toward its friends and supporters. In reality, it is unclear how all the general line items of the official budget are actually spent. This lack of transparency raised criticism from many members of parliament but they ultimately had no choice but to back down mostly because time to discuss the issues ran out.
Ali Mottahari, a member of the Majlis Cultural Commission, told the news agency Mehr News, "The different tiers of the budget greatly strengthen the government's hand in how it wants to spend the money and at the same time limit the supervisory control of the Majlis. When there's a general line item, the Majlis cannot question the [government's way of] spending it. "
An expert in religious matters, who preferred not to be named, believes that the government has been successful in the allocation of large sums for the organisation of a strong minority of supporters but that it has not actually had much effect.
"All this money has not really had an impact on cultural trends and attitudes of the majority of the population in the direction favoured by the government," he said.
About the author: Reihaneh Mazaheri is an Iranian economic journalist based in Paris.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Persian pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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