By Golnaz Esfandiari
May 14, 2020
The innumerous, pretty food packages for the poor were carefully set around the shrine of the founder of Iran’s Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to highlight support for people left in need by the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
But those images filling Iranian news sites led to a sudden flood of criticism from people shocked by the stark contrast between Khomeini’s glittery shrine and the thought of the uncountable thousands of Iranians that need such handouts to survive.
“Forty years after the revolution of Imam Khomeini, people were not supposed to be in need of rice, oil, and macaroni, which have been displayed at such an aristocratic place!” tweeted Ghasem Mohammadi, who describes himself as a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and a supporter of detained opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi.
Another Twitter user, Majid, noted that “the imam of the poor is buried in a palace” while being surrounded by food packages for the poor that are likely to last its needy recipients a mere week.
Journalist and political activist Mehdi Mahmudian went so far as to call on Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan Khomeini, to apologize to the people for the controversial images of food packages at the mausoleum of Khomeini, who, according to his supporters, led an ascetic life.
“The existence of each family that is dependent on these [food] packages is a shame for everyone, particularly for your family,” Mahmudian, who was imprisoned in 2009 for his role in documenting prison rapes, tweeted. “These [packages are nothing to be proud of], it is shameful.”
Many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet due to a poor economy under pressure from crippling U.S. sanctions as well as alleged mismanagement and corruption.
Many people’s situations have been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic that has severely impacted the economy, with a lockdown shutting down businesses and putting people out of work.
A poll published in April by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) found that the coronavirus outbreak has hurt the income of some 50 percent of those surveyed. Nearly 42 percent said their businesses were shut as a result of the virus.
The packages are being distributed to the poor — particularly those affected by the coronavirus pandemic — by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has put them on display in religious shrines and other places around the country.
The charitable acts played up in the media appear to be part of efforts by the IRGC to improve its image, especially following a deadly November 2019 crackdown on anti-government protesters that killed hundreds, as well as the January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed all 176 people on board.
The IRGC admitted to the “unintentional” shooting down of the plane three days after the incident, a delay that resulted in widespread outrage from Iranians.
No IRGC official has thus far resigned over the tragic incident that occurred as Iranian forces were on high alert after missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq made in retaliation for the U.S. assassination days earlier of top IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad.
The IRGC has also tried to portray itself as a major player in Iran’s battle against the pandemic that has killed more than 6,700 Iranians and infected nearly 110,000, according to official figures released by the Health Ministry on May 12.
Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher. Research by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda showed that at least two to three times more people had been infected with coronavirus and died from its disease than officials were reporting.