REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Some beneficiaries of an Iranian government cash-subsidy program have been asked -– via a phone alert -– to voluntarily give up their checks because they are too "well off," even as prices soar and purchasing power drops due to a recent currency devaluation.
The Tehran residents reported receiving an SMS alert on their cellphones Monday, signed by the "organization for slashing subsidies." The message asked them to log on to the cash-subsidy website and delete themselves from the list of beneficiaries.
" ... As you are well off and can live up to your standards without cash subsidies please go to www.refahi.ir, the website of the cash subsidies distribution, and delete your name as the head of family and do not receive the cash subsidies anymore," the message read.
Behrouz Moradi, the head of the organization, later went on state-run TV and said, "Well-off beneficiaries can voluntarily give up or not give up" their subsidies.
Little more than a year ago, Iranian authorities replaced government subsidized goods with cash handouts of about $24 per person per month.
The cash subsidies, launched in December 2010, were aimed at providing Iranian authorities the ability to eliminate decades-long subsidies on such goods as rice, bread, meats and electricity.
Two months ago, the government declared that 10 million recipients could get by without the cash subsidies. Some Iranian lawmakers resisted, however, and did not approve their removal from the list of beneficiaries.
Some of those receiving the phone message this week expressed surprise. Others said they were angry. One 31-year-old woman whose father received the SMS said she was furious because their family of seven would lose $167 a month if they no longer received the subsidy.
Iran has been facing Western economic pressure over its contested nuclear program, and its national currency, the rial, plummeted dramatically against the dollar a few months ago.
The unstable economic situation and the effect of the currency devaluation on imported goods appear to be having an impact on ordinary Iranians' purchasing power.
As Iranians gear up to celebrate the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, in less than 10 days, the usual pre-holiday hustle and bustle in the Tehran bazaar and on the sidewalks of the central parts of the capital is largely absent. Tehran shop owners are complaining about unusually bad business.
"This year, at least 30% of our daily selling has dropped compared with last year,” said Nader, 50, a suit shop owner.
Economists say people are limiting their purchases of non-essential goods, in part due to fears of rising inflation.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut