Charitable interpretation: Iran’s massive religious foundations

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Boxes like these are all over Iran. At first I thought they were for an incredibly well developed postal service. Then I learned they’re actually to collect donations. When Iranians give to them their monies end up in the hands of the bonyads, mega religious foundations that provide social services we would ordinarily expect to be delivered by government.

When Iranians buy a can of soda, a pizza strudel, or a hormone to encourage sturgeon to produce more caviar, they are contributing to the bonyads too. They were gifted assets that had been confiscated from detractors in the revolution. They have legislated monopolies. And they pay no tax. Some estimates say bonyads account for as much as 20% of Iran’s GDP or 40% of the non-oil and gas sectors.

It is the bonyads who help the destitute in Iran, support the families or martyrs, veterans and persons suffering from serious disease. It is like the Iranian government has outsourced social security to something that is part state owned enterprise and part make a wish foundation.

A a very superficial observer, the system seems to work. There is a notable absence of beggars on the streets of Iran, even as compared with Turkey which is a much richer country. But I’d hold off on suggesting we start up bonyads at home. There are some pretty major concerns:

  • There are more than a hundred of them and they don’t coordinate. The government doesn’t know what, why, how and to whom help and assistance is given. Some folk must fall through the cracks, and certainly some get unduly rich.
  • Bonyads are unaccountable. They don’t present audited accounts and they don’t have to answer tough questions. It is likely that the bonyads are a major source of Iranian funding that gets channeled to groups like Hezbollah but no one can know for sure.
  • They control so much wealth that they’ve become a force of their own in the complex web that is Iranian politics. One commentator suggested the head of the largest one has the single greatest influence on the Iranian economy – more than the Finance Minister or head of the Central Bank. Another likens their influence to Popes and Cardinals in medieval Europe. Sure, the Kings were “in charge” but the papacy had the money.

Safe to say, knowing all this, even the left over rial we had as we crossed into Turkey was not going into a bonyad box.

 

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