Iran's President Hassan Rouhani presented a budget bill meant to dodge the impacts of "tyrannical US sanctions" to the country's parliament Dec. 25. The proposed $112 billion budget will cover the upcoming Iranian year running from March 21, 2019, to March 20, 2020.
The president's speech in defense of the bill was marred, however, by a group of lawmakers representing the oil-rich but underdeveloped southwestern Khuzestan province. The parliamentarians gathered in front of the podium, disrupting Rouhani's speech before they were asked by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to exercise restraint and let the session proceed.
The lawmakers were furious at what they believe is the government's negligence of Khuzestan's water crisis. The province has been a scene of unrest in the past several months over a host of other public woes including unemployment and dust storms. Workers at many factories there have been holding sit-ins and strikes demanding overdue salaries. A heavy-handed crackdown has led to multiple arrests, and some people have been held incommunicado for weeks.
The lawmakers' protest was criticized by most of the pro-Reformist papers. Arman described the scene as "an unprecedented incident" and Etemad published an opinion by Reformist lawmaker Mostafa Kavakebian against the gesture. While defending people's right to clean water, Kavakebian lashed out at his colleagues for failing to show courtesy and respect parliamentary decorum.
The bill proposed by Rouhani was associated with belt-tightening measures. If ratified by the parliament, it will force a 20% increase in gas and oil prices, and Iranians can also expect a 33% jump in their water bills. Hard-line paper Kayhan, affiliated with the supreme leader's office, criticized the president for not lowering prices. It also quoted a parliament member as saying the bill was "a step backward."
In the new Iranian year, the government is also planning to cut costs by laying off up to 10% of public service employees considered redundant. Cultural institutions will suffer significant cuts, some up to 30%. As for the defense budget, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will still enjoy a large share.
Ardeshir Nourian a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said any military budget cut would definitely undergo revisions by the parliament, citing "the necessity of boosting Iran's defenses and preparedness of the country's armed forces amid the ongoing special circumstances in the region."
Rouhani told parliament that his budget was planned in accordance with US sanctions. Crude sales, as the lifeline of the Iranian economy, have served as the key element in the structure of Iran's annual budgets. Now, the Rouhani government has set its oil income at an average $54 per barrel, estimating sales of 1.5 million barrels per day. Crude production has been estimated at a million barrels down as US sanctions against Iran's oil sector continue to hit in the wake of the Washington's departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In his speech, Rouhani reminded the nation that certain corporations he did not name evade paying taxes. Taxing institutions that do not report to the government and fall under the auspices of the supreme leader has for long been a red line in Iranian politics. It was, however, brought up by Rouhani during presidential election debates in 2017, where he faced Ebrahim Raisi, the head of one such powerful and affluent organization, Astan-e Quds Razavi.
The attack on hard-line opponents did not end there. Rouhani used the chance to once again reference the nationwide protests that rocked Iran late 2017 and early 2018. He repeated the argument that the protests emboldened the US government and gave it a pass to make an easy pullout from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions on Iran. In the wake of the unrest, Rouhani insisted that it was instigated by his relentless hard-line rivals in Mashhad, led by the city's powerful and conservative Friday Prayer leader Ahmad Alamolhoda and his son-in-law Ebrahim Raisi, who lost the 2017 presidential election to Rouhani.
But some of his Reformist supporters did not buy the president's explanation. Shahrbanou Amani, a member of the Tehran City Council, expressed surprise at the remarks. "I would not expect to hear this from a person who claims to be a law expert. I can't clearly understand why he links the US pullout from the JCPOA to those protests."
Taking a similar approach and unlike other pro-government papers, Reformist Ghanoon also did not welcome the remarks and criticized Rouhani for "boasting about his achievements" and passing the buck on the government's failures.
Months into discussion of the bill, the fight over the budget is a full blown battle. Now, anticipating the impacts of reimposed US sanctions, Rouhani is pushing to prepare the nation ahead of the storm. But his die-hard opponents won't make it easy.
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