Outrage in Iran at exorbitant public salaries
TEHRAN - Revelations of exorbitant salaries paid to senior officials have sparked widespread anger in Iran, threatening to undermine public support for President Hassan Rouhani as he prepares to run for re-election next year.
Rouhani's government has launched an investigation into public pay following the reports of executives at the state insurance regulator earning more than 50 times the base government salary.
The president's opponents are demanding answers on behalf of struggling Iranians who have yet to see the promised economic benefits of the country's nuclear deal with world powers.
The Iranian parliament's conservative speaker, Ali Larijani, hammered the message home in the legislature on Tuesday, announcing the Supreme Audit Court would release a report on the issue next week.
"These excessive salaries have caused anxiety in society," Larijani said, responding to a claim from another conservative MP that a senior health ministry official was earning 2 billion rials ($58,000) a month, far above the base public sector salary of about $400 a month.
The revelations surfaced two months ago, when the salaries of several senior executives at the Central Insurance of Iran (CII), the state insurance regulator, were revealed on social media.
In some cases the salaries ranged between 700 million and 800 million rials ($20,000 to $23,000) per month.
The source of the leaks is not known but several Iranian media picked up on the reports, including IRIB state television which wrote on its website that the revelations had "shocked and angered ordinary people".
- 'Apologies to the people' -
Mohammad-Ebrahim Amin, the head of the CII, resigned over the scandal.
"I am ashamed that under my responsiblity an incident... became the target of massive media attacks on (the CII), you and the government," Mehr news agency quoted him as writing in a letter to Rouhani.
With anger mounting over the revelations, Rouhani on Sunday ordered first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri to conduct an investigation into senior officials' income and bonuses.
Government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht even offered "apologies to the people" over the salaries. He said loopholes that allowed for excessive pay would be closed and that officials who received such wages would "certainly be removed from office".
"Ninety-nine percent of employees have standard salaries," Nobakht said, noting that by law the highest public sector salaries should be no more than 10 times the amount paid to the lowest positions.
The pay scandal comes at an especially delicate time for Rouhani, the driving force behind last year's historic deal that saw Iran limit its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of punishing international sanctions.
The moderate-leaning Rouhani assured Iranians that the nuclear agreement would boost economic prosperity by ending the country's international isolation, but the lifting of the sanctions in January has so far had little effect.
Iran's economy remains in the doldrums, with growth of less than one percent and an unemployment rate of 11 percent.
Addressing parliament last week, the ministers of industry and the interior painted a bleak picture of chronic under-investment, surging inflation and rising unemployment.
- 'We will be slapped' -
Economy Minister Ali Tayebnia is targeting economic growth of five percent this year, but Iranian media regularly report layoffs, plant shutdowns and protests by unpaid workers.
Rouhani's moderate and reformist allies scored significant gains in parliamentary elections earlier this year, winning more seats than conservatives though not an outright majority.
The vote was seen as an endorsement of the nuclear deal and of Rouhani, who is expected to seek a second and final four-year term in a presidential election set for the spring of 2017.
With the country already in pre-election mode, Rouhani's conservative critics have seized on the economy as the president's potential weak spot.
Mohammad Reza Bahonnar, the conservative deputy speaker of the last parliament, recently urged the government "to show the people the way out of recession," adding sarcastically: "It's still important."
With the public salary scandal highlighting economic inequalities, even some reformists and moderate newspapers have raised concerns, with several calling for a major government reshuffle.
Reformist MP Mostafa Kavakebian on Monday issued a stern warning about the economic situation.
"If we do nothing for the people, we will be slapped," he said. "There is one year left until the end of the government's mandate, several ministers must change."