Iran is spending more money on culture, but where’s the accountability?

First published by Al-Monitor

With all eyes on the lifting of sanctions on Iran, and the country’s upcoming Feb. 26 parliamentary elections, little attention has been paid to the budget bill for the next Iranian year, which President Hassan Rouhani submitted to parliament Jan. 17.

A review of the bill shows an intricate move on the part of the Rouhani administration to increase the funding allocated to the cultural bodies under its control relative to those nominally under the control of the supreme leader, but effectively accountable to no one.

In a largely state-owned economy that has its roots in the seizing of assets by different factions in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there are a myriad of cultural bodies that receive all or most of their funding from the government. As a result, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is controlled by the executive branch, is allocated less than a quarter of cultural spending. The rest goes to a long list of bodies ranging from seminaries to private foundations to cultural behemoths controlled by various factions.

This situation has been highlighted by figures such as well-known public intellectual Sadegh Zibakalam. Decrying the long list of cultural organizations that receive public funding without “being accountable in any shape or form to parliament or to the executive branch,” Zibakalam has calculated that 87% of last year’s spending on culture went to organizations that were not held accountable, with only 13% granted to the Ministry of Culture, with its thousands of employees and its responsibility for vetting all films, book and music works produced in Iran. This is partly the work of the Principlist former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who gave new muscle to the cultural bodies that were most likely to be his allies. However, if the new budget bill is any indicator, the Rouhani administration has started to rebalance things by gradually increasing the Ministry of Culture’s share of spending allocations.

With a 41% increase, the Ministry of Culture’s budget now stands at 10 trillion rials ($335 million). Moreover, the Ministry of Culture-run Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO) will now get 2.3 trillion trials. Meanwhile, the National Library and Archives of Iran, headed by Rouhani campaign adviser Reza Salehi Amiri gets a dramatic 47% increase in its funding to 950 billion rials. Furthermore, the publishing house associated with the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will also see its budget increased by 50% to 600 billion rials. Of note, the publisher is controlled by Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who also happens to be a key ally of Rouhani.

While the share of these Rouhani-controlled entities as part of total cultural spending has increased in the coming Iranian year’s budget (March 20, 2016 – March 20, 2017), the reverse is true for the organizations that are controlled by the administration’s hard-line foes. The Islamic Development Organization, the Islamic Dissemination Bureau of the Qom Seminary, the Coordination Council of Islamic Dissemination, the Supreme Council of Seminaries, Imam Khomeini Educational Research Institute (notably controlled by hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi) and Al-Mustafa International University (used as a recruiting ground for foreign allies) have all gotten single-digit increases in their budgets, and thus a lower share of the total cultural budget compared with last year. The same stands true for the Basij, the paramilitary organization that is formally part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but has a separate budget. Indeed, the Basij will only get a 5% rise in its budget, which in effect means it will get a lower share of the national budget. Of note, at 10.7 trillion rials, the Basij has a larger budget than the Ministry of Culture.

Despite Rouhani’s efforts to rebalance cultural spending, it is important not to exaggerate them. Billions of rials still go to unaccountable organizations, which will not take an attack on their positions lightly. Indeed, already, the semi-official Mehr News Agency has criticized the new budget bill as “illogical“. This should come as no surprise since Mehr News Agency is run by the shadowy Islamic Development Organization (IDO). Of note, IDO will continue to receive a staggering 3.140 trillion rials, which is significantly more than the government-controlled ICRO which, as part of its mandate, has the responsibility of running dozens of cultural sections in Iranian embassies around the world, the Saadi Foundation (Iran’s international Persian-teaching institute) and some key international religious organizations.

IDO’s head is directly appointed by the supreme leader and its tentacles extend to every corner of the cultural scene in Iran — and even abroad. Among the entities under its control are several universities and academic institutions, the English-language daily Tehran Times, the Artistic Center (which, among other things, runs dozens of cinemas) and Amir Kabir publication house. Headed since 2002 by the little-known Mehdi Khamooshi, 53, IDO’s inner workings are a mystery even to some of its own managers. “Very few people ever meet Mr. Khamooshi,” a midlevel manager of the Artistic Center told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Moreover, according to Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, a former deputy culture minister now based in London, IDO’s role has dramatically increased in the last decade. Ramezanpour told Al-Monitor, “For instance, the now-massive Council of Quranic Activities didn’t exist before. Abroad, IDO is now stronger than some official Iranian cultural representations.”

IDO is only one example of organizations whose obscure names may hide vast operations. Another such entity is the Coordination Council of Islamic Dissemination (CCID), which has been allocated 360 billion rials in the new budget bill. Among its activities, CCID organizes the “Death to America” flag-burning demonstrations regularly held around Iran.

In addition, some of the most sophisticated cultural organizations are run by another state-funded force whose budget Rouhani will increase by 43% to a whopping 150 trillion rials ($5 billion): the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“There wasn’t even any pressure to increase the IRGC’s budget,” a senior official at the Rouhani-controlled Management and Planning Organization, which is tasked with drafting the budget bill, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “We want to be on good terms with them, as much as possible,” adding with a sigh, “not that they stop their outrageous attacks on the government.” Rouhani often lashes out against corruption and a lack of accountability. If anything, his new budget bill appears to show that even in the post-sanctions era, he is continuing his approach of opting for gradual change rather than head-on confrontation with his foes. Whether this path will work remains to be seen.

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