Iran giving food away to millions for relief

TEHRAN — The Iranian government has started handing out food packages for millions of its citizens both to help those with low income and to try to lower inflation on food, local news media reported on Monday.

Across the capital, Tehran, and in the rest of the country, long lines of people waited in government-owned department stores, where the food is being distributed. President Hassan Rouhani has said the handouts are intended to “ease the pressure” on Iranians and demonstrate some of the immediate benefits from the recent interim nuclear agreement with world powers.

All government employees and citizens making less than 5 million rials, or $170, a month are eligible to receive the food package, which contains more than 20 pounds of rice from India, two frozen chickens from Turkey, three dozen eggs, more than two quarts of vegetable oil and two packs of processed cheese.

Over 15 million families will receive the free food, the reformist newspaper Shargh wrote on Monday. Both the rice and most of the chickens have been imported as part of barter trades for oil and gas, said a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Inflation, which stood at 42 percent when Mr. Rouhani took office in August, has gone down to 37 percent, the government says.

On Tehran’s streets, many said they were happy with the aid but would have preferred money. “I wish the government would just give me cash money instead,” said Zahra Farsi, 46, who stood in line next to a supermarket in west Tehran in the bitter cold. “It is clear that a lot of this stuff has been given to the government; it’s not all useful to me. But, hey, I’ll take what I can get.”

Local news agencies published photographs of people pushing and shoving their way to the front of the lines, prompting hard-liners to criticize the handouts, saying they are degrading, especially as modest celebrations of the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution are underway.

Two people died in scrums on Sunday while trying to get their packages, foreign Persian-language news outlets reported. Local officials said the two people had died from heart failure, not the crush of the crowds.

“The antirevolutionary media try to use everything against our system,” Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, said on Monday during a news conference. Nevertheless, he admitted that the distribution of the food packages needed to improve.

“It is not appropriate for our people to wait in long lines,” Mr. Ejei said.

Most Iranian governments have handed out food. In 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad handed out bags of free potatoes and discounted chickens during campaign trips in the provinces. The handouts came during a period of record oil windfalls, with Iran taking in more than $700 billion from 2005 to 2012.

Most Iranians already receive cash each month from the government, to ease the pain that ensued after the government canceled subsidies for energy, food staples and utilities in 2007. Under Mr. Rouhani, those payments are being phased out because of a cash squeeze that officials attribute to international economic sanctions and mismanagement under Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The public mood has not been helped by recent freezing temperatures and heavy snow. In northern Iran, in the green hills around the Caspian Sea, almost seven feet of snow had fallen since Friday, in what officials described as the worst snowstorm in five decades, the Iranian news media reported. Villages were cut off, and officials said they had problems providing electricity and gas to the snow-struck areas, where around 500,000 people live.

At one supermarket near Argentine Square in Tehran, people waited over an hour in a long, well-organized line, complaining that the aid packages were a symbol of the government’s inefficiency.

“No matter how much I work, it is never enough,” said one man, who asked not to be named for reasons of security. “I need double my salary I make to survive. This package helps, but will there be a similar food package next week, or even next month? There is no system in anything in this country.”

By The New York Times 



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