Even by the standards of the eleventh parliament, Iran’s budget for 2021-22 is nothing short of a scandal: the first instance of its kind since the Islamic Revolution and indeed, since the Constitutionalist movement.
There has been no record of individuals directly interfering in MPs’ approval of a budget law since 1907. There have also been no recorded cases of the budget’s stipulations being altered after MPs have approved it. But somehow, in 2021, both of these things happened – seemingly to the benefit of some of the most powerful parastatal institutions in Iran.
The influence of figures such as the Supreme Leader on the budget has been commonplace since the Islamic Revolution. But even last year, when Ali Khamenei issued a government decree to usher the budget bill through, the legal formalities were preserved; it was signed off by the Budget Committee as usual and sent to the Guardian Council.
In the final days of the 2020-21 financial year, a strange and unprecedented chain of events took place in Iran. No-one could have foreseen that a parliamentarian, let alone the likes of embattled Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, would create the conditions for retrospective manipulation of the budget – to the potential tune of hundreds of billions of tomans.
Ghalibaf's Latest Scandal
Ghalibaf, a controversial ex-IRGC commander whose 12-year tenure as Mayor of Tehran was marred by corruption scandals, submitted the 2021-22 budget law to President Rouhani on March 18, 2021 after its approval by MPs and the Guardian Council.
But more than a month later on April 24, some 100 MPs issued a letter of protest. Addressed to Ghalibaf, it was also shared with IRNA News Agency. In it, the MPs demanded to know why the new law had been changed without their consent before it was sent on to the executive.
Calling for “the dignity of parliament” to be respected, they wrote: "One of the slogans of the 11th parliament has been transparency. A lack of transparency can lead to injustice and, even at higher levels, corruption.”
The MPs contested that the main body of the budget law had been radically modified by “one or two” lawmakers since they approved it, under the supervision of the chairman of Budget Committee. Among the changes, they said, were some that benefitted well-connected individuals and regime insiders.
“These changes are not limited to the figures,” they said, “but even general changes to the notes and tables within them, and corrections to the Guardian Council's errors.”
They also said that during the debate on the budget bill, various MPs had pointed out that several crucial tables were missing, but the chairman had ignored their complaint.
The issue had first come to light five days earlier. In a post on Twitter, Ali Khezrian, an MP for Tehran and Rey, had cited Elias Naderan, the head of the Budget Committee, as saying that “sweeping” changes to the budget law were under way with his “knowledge and approval”.
The Iranian newspaper Sazandegi also published a detailed report on the situation on April 26, entitled Ghalibaf's New Headache. The report stated that more than 200 items in the budget tables had been changed. In addition to Elias Naderan, the report named Jamal al-Din Abroumand, an IRGC commander who had recently become Ghalibaf's aide, and lawmakers Malek Shariati Niasar and Mojtaba Tavangar as among the committee members who had a hand in or had overseen the changes.
Subsidies Piled on Religious and Propaganda Institutions
Up until now, the precedent has been for the budget tables to be published online at the same time as their submission to the executive. But this year, as numerous Iranian observers pointed out, the final text did not go live until April 14.
Sazandegi also stated that the published tables had been manipulated several times over between March 17 and April 10. While it is not clear when each amendment was made, some of the demonstrable changes between the original bill and the final version were in Note 14: the part that deals with targeted subsidies.
Some 200 to 300 billion tomans (US $8.3 to $12.5 million) had been added to the budget for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the Islamic Propaganda Organization, for the stated purposes of "strengthening social and cultural power and creating digital infrastructure". In the originally-proposed bill, Note 14 contains no reference to this aim, nor of the IRIB and the Islamic Propaganda Organization as beneficiaries.
Elsewhere, in the sixteenth paragraph of the final budget law, a total of 1,965 billion tomans ($82m) has been ring-fenced for "seminaries and service centers". The original bill had allocated just 495 billion tomans ($20.7m) to these institutions. In the twentieth paragraph, meanwhile, another 5,124 billion tomans ($215m) had been included for the Foundation or Martyrs and Veterans Affairs. In the twenty-third paragraph, 200 billion tomans ($8.3m) were newly-earmarked as assistance to the families of armed forces members.
The Dimensions of the Conspiracy
So far it is not clear which other amendments to the budget bill were approved by MPs, and which were made behind closed doors, allegedly by a closed circle of lawmakers and Ghalibaf. In all likelihood, a full report will never be published.
But given the welter of changes made to subsidies alone, and the extent of the backlash from a conservative-dominated parliament, it can be safely assumed that the manipulations are in the range of hundreds of billions of tomans and benefit a closed circle of well-connected figures. Their concerns – such as the IRIB and the Islamic Propaganda Organization – in turn play a decisive role in the Iranian political arena.
The fact that this happened at all is staggering and, as the 100 MPs lament, represents an unprecedented backward step for already-flagging accountability in the eleventh Iranian parliament. Whether the Iranian public is afforded the right to know how severe the damage has been will also be up to them, and to those others who were involved.