By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Simmering anger in Iran's hard-line media over official salaries has forced President Hassan Rohani's administration onto the defensive with a likely reelection bid for the relative moderate on the horizon.
The purported pay slips from earlier this year of executives from government-owned insurance agencies and banks were recently leaked online, and appear to show inflated salaries, bonuses, and other benefits that could prove politically divisive in a country where roughly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Instances cited by conservative media suggest an insurance executive received about $30,000 in monthly compensation and a bank manager was paid more than $65,000 for a month's work, as much as 200 times what modestly paid government employees make and more than 100 times the official average household salary.
The original source of the leaks remains unclear.
The scandal has already prompted the resignation of Iran's state insurance regulator, Mohammad Ebrahim Amin, and a reported jail term for an unnamed government executive who was said to have refused to explain and document his income to the head of the General Inspectorate Organization, Nasser Seraj.
Some Iranians have taken to social media to criticize the officials' salaries and post their own pay slips to highlight the disproportion. Blue-collar laborers in Iran frequently wait months for their wages, teachers struggle to make ends meet, and union leaders are among the most influential critics of the country's leadership.
Under pressure from conservative media and expressions of public outrage, Rohani in a letter urging official action in mid-June acknowledged "unconventional payments" but blamed holdover legislation from previous administrations and promised action.
On June 27, Rohani's first vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, vowed that the government would act against those who receive "illegal" or "extraordinary" salaries.
"Society and public opinion expect the government to return illegal payments to the treasury and dismiss the violators on this issue," Jahangiri was quoted by a government website as saying.
Rohani supporters have suggested the publication of the pay slips is aimed at hobbling Rohani and dimming his chances of reelection in next year's presidential vote.
Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi was quoted by the hard-line Fars news agency on June 20 as saying that "people believe the leaks are politically motivated."
Rohani swept into office in 2013 on pledges of reform that included greater rights for women and dialing down persecution of dissent and public criticism of the government, although such efforts have mostly stalled.
He also successfully concluded an agreement with the United States and other world powers to curb Tehran's fiercely disputed nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief that could revive trade and other ties with the West, further angering hard-liners in Iran.
He has come under increased pressure to deliver on promises to improve Iran's economy, including through tangible benefits from the nuclear deal.
Reformers and political allies with Rohani's explicit or implicit backing returned in significant numbers to Iran's parliament in elections earlier this year, although most of the power in the country's clerically controlled system resides with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The state-run daily Etelaat, which has shown sympathy in the past to reformist causes and politicians, suggested earlier this month that the online leak of the pay slips in the final year of Rohani's presidential term was a "planned" move aimed at chipping away at public trust.
An ultra-hard-line daily, Kayhan, last week rejected that argument as a "weak defense that doesn't convince anyone" and said, "Even if that is the case [that the leak was orchestrated], then solve the problem and don't give an excuse to critics."
Kayhan called on the government to make the pay slips of its executives public: "The pay slips of managers is not among confidential documents. Transparency is the most principled way to act against these issues."
It added that "a real and acceptable apology will be when the government gives all access to the pay slips of its managers."
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