A conservative ayatollah told the people they should buy less chicken anyhow because it is bad for their health. And the governor general of Tehran province blamed the people for high prices, accusing them of stuffing too much chicken into their freezers.
The chicken squawk was set off earlier this month when Iran’s national police chief told state television not to broadcast films showing people eating chicken because it might make those who can no longer afford chicken jealous. Once the nation stopped laughing at the police chief, it started griping openly about the high price of chicken. The feathers haven’t stopped flying since.
Chicken used to be a rare dish affordable by the working class only on special occasions. In recent decades, however, chicken has become virtually a staple food. The poor expect it to be available in large quantities and at low prices. But that has ceased to be true in recent weeks.
In the most dramatic expression of anger, several thousand people packed the main square in Neyshabur in the northeast province of Khorasan Rezavi to protest the high price of food in general and chicken in particular. Many said it was the first street protest over economic issues since the revolution.
According to a video posted on YouTube, they chanted, “Death to inflation” and demanded that the Ahmadi-nejad government resign.
The city’s public prosecutor was in a mosque on the square when the protest erupted. According to posting on the city’s web page, he came out and urged the crowd to go home. “We have recorded everything and identified you,” he said. “I hope the day doesn’t come that you stand against our regime and officials.”
The price of chicken in Tehran has tripled in the past two months to 80,000 rials a kilo or about $1.90 a pound at the open market exchange rate.
To try to assuage public anger, the government has made subsidized chicken available at 47,000 rials a kilo ($1.12 a pound). Official media have said that some people reported waiting in line 14 hours to get some of the subsidized chicken.
Inflation is officially pegged as being around 21 percent. But The Wall Street Journal quoted independent economists as saying it is now over 60 percent. Iran’s Statistics Center announced Monday that it was halting its release of monthly inflation figures until it can come up with better figures.
Chicken in Iran today is not finger lickin’ good so much as a huge embarrassment for the government. The daily Etemad ran a front page story Monday under the headline: “The days of chicken politics.”
National Police Chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam urged state television to avoid broadcasting images of people eating chicken, saying such pictures could fire up social tensions. “Certain people witnessing this class gap between the rich and the poor might grab a knife and think they will get their share from the wealthy,” he said in apparent seriousness. As far as is known, no one has gone to that extreme.
The surge in the price is mainly due to a shortage of chicken feed. Earlier this year, ships carrying feed to Iran turned around and sailed elsewhere when Iran could not find the funds to pay for the cargoes within 10 days. And when the regime can pay, the declining value of the rial means chicken feed no longer costs chicken feed; it cost real money.
Many Iranians are expressing their frustration with mordant humor.
Cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who now lives in France, mocked Moqaddam’s warning with a cartoon of a young man watching a pornographic film. His father tries to cover up the image of a roast chicken in the background of the film, saying: “How many times have I told you not to watch films with chicken in them?”
Photographer Arash Ashuri-nia published on his website a range of images showing delectable chicken dishes. “It’s possible that publishing these kinds of photos will be banned. Of course, I had many more beautiful photos, but I wouldn’t want to act against national security!” he wrote underneath.
Iran’s social networks are buzzing. “There are two classes of people: below the chicken line and above the chicken line,” quipped one Twitter posting from a Shiraz resident.
Another tweet joked that instead of asking for traditional gold coins, soon-to-be-married women would request dowries of 200 tons of chicken.
Pictures of people lined up to buy government-subsidized chicken have been widely carried in the media—presumably to demonstrate that the government is addressing the problem.
The regime has boasted for years that it is striving to make Iran self-sufficient in food. It has often announced goals for ending imports of wheat, tomatoes and other popular products. But it seems to have forgotten about chicken feed, so Iran’s chicken industry remains dependent on the outside world.
There are no sanctions banning sales of chicken feed to Iran. But banking restrictions have made it hard to transact payments for needed imports and oil sanctions are now cutting state income and may make it harder to find the cash for needed imports.
Talking to Reuters by telephone, a veteran chicken producer in Iran, who asked not to be named, blamed the price rise on government mismanagement as well as the sanctions.
“Around half the chicken farms have stopped production because it has become too expensive to buy the imported raw materials,” he said, citing the sharp increases in the cost of feed and imported vaccines.
Many in politics are happily blaming President Ahmadi-nejad. “Livestock and poultry dealers gave warnings eight months ago about the lack of hay and feed,” said Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani.
And it seems almost everyone has an explanation or a solution.
Morteza Tamaddon, governor general of Tehran Province, said, “People buy and store foods at home for no reason—with the excuse that prices may rise in the future—and then they throw the food away [when it goes bad].”
Grand Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi, a regime supporter, told the public to stop eating so much chicken. “Many people complain about the high price of chicken,” he said. “But it is not a very important problem if they do not eat chicken. Most doctors have said that meat is not good for one’s health and should be taken in small amounts.”