Rouhani's New Budget Offers Pain Without Hope

Contradictory economic goals won't rescue Iran from its present crisis. The economic chaos of the Ahmadinejad years could come back.

President Hassan Rouhani submitted a budget bill for the next Iranian year (which begins in March) to the Iranian parliament this last December. This budget should be of particular interest to Iran watchers at a time when sanctions are biting, oil prices have fallen and the country is in the midst of nuclear negotiations.

Tehran may blame a foreign plot by Saudi Arabia and the United States for many of its troubles, but such complaints are of no use for a besieged economy that needs a far deeper understanding of global economic trends, a better appreciation of successful development models, and smarter economic management. We don’t find any of that in the new budget.

Rouhani’s proposal manages to be both incoherent and misguided, offering the pain of neoliberalism without its benefits. It is an illiberal security-austerity budget that will not take Iran out of its present doldrums, and which ultimately risks a return to the economic chaos of the Ahmadinejad years. The Iranian people deserve better.

Conceptual Basis of the Budget

The budget bill, which has been produced by the newly‑revived Organization of Management and Planning, offers no explicit conceptual framework within which the budget is formulated, nor is it based on any “planning” for the economy— budgeting is no planning. This is despite the fact that the budget bill document begins with a quote from Imam Ali (the first Shi’ite imam) saying “correct (economic) planning increases trivial wealth while incorrect planning destroys abundant wealth.” It also does not begin with a discussion of the nation’s economic development prerequisites, nor give any indication of its trajectories.

However, the budget bill is based on an implicit economic philosophy that one must glean from the relative distribution of budgeted revenues and expenditures as well as priorities bestowed on various socio-economic sectors. The key concept behind the budget is a twisted version of the “neoliberal” model, the laissez-faire economic policy that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The proponents of the neoliberal economic policy support extensive economic liberalization, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the free market, the individual and the private sector in the economy. But economic liberalism assumes political liberalism, which is absent in the Islamic Republic.

Accordingly, austerity measures in the form of significant cuts to social and subsidy programs, devaluation of the national currency, “privatization” of public enterprises, and regressive taxation are left as the main policy tools. Together, such measures form the cornerstone of the “stabilization” and “structural adjustment” policies of the IMF and the World Bank. However, in a conflicting twist, the budget also gives the highest priority to defense and security spending, which defeats the neoliberal purpose of reducing the size of the public sector and promoting individual liberty.

The budget also incorporates the idea of the “resistance economy,” decreed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which again runs counter to the laissez-faire (free market) and laissez-passer (free trade) perspectives of neoliberalism. In a speech earlier this month, as if Rouhani had forgotten that his budget was in part based on the dictated self-sufficiency idea, said that Iran’s economic development cannot happen in the context of “isolationism.” Thus, an intelligent reader will become bewildered by the fact that several conflicting economic policy ideas are juxtaposed to provide a seemingly harmonious budget philosophy.

A No‑Growth Budget

This budget is capped at $294 billion (at the official exchange rate of 28,500 rials to 1 U.S. dollar) and is 4 percent larger than the 2013 budget. Given the fall in oil prices, even if an unlikely nuclear deal was to be struck, the predicted figure can hardly be realized. The modest increase in the budget relative to its predecessor also suggests a no-growth scenario for the economy. This is despite the fact that a no-growth budget is terrible news for a population that is growing at 1.8 percent per year, is seeing its income decline while prices rise, and is facing a youth unemployment rate in the high double digits.

The preference for muddling through and preserving the status quo of zero growth is evident in the uses of the budget. While the supply side of the economy is neglected, the demand side is depressed through the use of contractionary fiscal and monetary policies. The budget also disregards growth-friendly educational, industrial and trade policies, and it only gives lip service to construction and infrastructure. Most significantly, the sanctions-crippled Iranian economy needs serious popular mobilization and attention to social justice, but the elite-centered budget is equally oblivious to these requirements.

Sources of the Budget