On the surface, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee is nothing more than an ordinary Iranian charity. But this organisation, which serves around 9m people, plays a central role in Iranian politics.
By helping the poorest with food, housing, education and healthcare, analysts believe the state charity helped ensure that Iran’s most disadvantaged people stayed away from the anti-government unrest that swept the country after last year’s presidential election.
Hossein Anvaari, the head of the relief committee, acknowledged as much in a rare interview with the Financial Times. “According to the information we have, none of these families [helped by the charity] got involved in the destructive scenes which is natural because they have touched the warmth of people’s donations,” he said.
The street protests have lost momentum in the last six months and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the opposition leader, has tacitly acknowledged the movement’s lack of support among the most disadvantaged, urging his followers to speak about economic problems to show they understand the concerns of the poor.
“The danger for the regime would be when the lower class, who do not have much to lose, pour into the streets, not the middle class who retreat when they face the regime’s might,” said one fundamentalist politician.
Mr Anvaari argued that the committee had been “effective for national security” since the revolution in 1979. “The opponents of the regime have tried to strike a blow whenever they have got the chance, but they have been unable to recruit soldiers from these [poor] groups,” he said.
He added that the poor did not join “numerous small and big crises” because the regime’s charity had given them dignity and helped them “not to sell themselves cheap”.
Of the 9m people aided by the committee, 4m receive long-term assistance. They include 1.5m elderly people, 1m female breadwinners, 300,000 orphans and 900,000 students who enjoy regular food, bonuses, medical treatment or housing.
Mr Anvaari put his organisation’s budget at over $2bn (€1.6bn, £1.3bn) most of which comes from the government. About 25 per cent is provided by public donation.
Reformist politicians say the committee has made its network available to the fundamentalist government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, president. The charity is used to implement the regime’s official policy of giving cash handouts to the poor. Meanwhile, these donations to the needy are allegedly accompanied by recommendations on who to vote for during national elections.
Mr Anvaari denied his organisation was involved in politics and said it was careful to remain neutral during the last election. “We even stopped our services one month before last year’s election because of such accusations,” he said.
He added that the rise in the committee’s budget under Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was only in accordance with economic growth and inflation. He noted that it has increased by only 6 per cent this year.
But even conservative politicians – including Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president – have criticised the government for adopting what they call a “charity economy”.
Despite the charity’s efforts, 10m out of Iran’s 73m people endure “absolute poverty”, while another 30m live under the poverty line, according to the Iran Census Centre.