The soaring price of a staple food that Iranians relish has created two kinds of people – those above and below the 'chicken line'.
Iran's chicken crisis makes feathers fly
IRAN // Iran's national police chief ventured boldly this month into what has become known as the country's "chicken crisis".
The feathers haven't stopped flying since.
The soaring price of a staple food that Iranians relish, cooked with saffron, plums or pomegranates, has become such a hot topic of public debate - and a sign of the sinking purchasing power of many Iranians - that Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the police chief, felt it his duty to intervene.
He urged television stations to avoid broadcasting images of people eating chicken because such pictures could fire up social tensions, with perhaps unforeseen consequences. "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.
As far as is known, no one has gone to that extreme, but as Iran's economy struggles with erratic government management and international sanctions imposed due to the country's disputed nuclear programme, the prices of food and fuel have jumped in the past 18 months.
At about 65,000 rials (Dh20), a kilogram of chicken is now nearly three times the price it was a year ago. This makes it hard to afford for many in a country where gross national income per capita was about Dh1,400 a month, according to the most recent estimate by the World Bank.
The surge in the price has been caused mainly by the exorbitant cost of importing chicken feed with Iran's weakened currency, which on the black market is more than 40 per cent lower against the US dollar than it was at the start of this year.
With chicken becoming rarer on middle and working-class dinner tables, many Iranians are expressing their frustration with mordant humour. An Iranian cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, who lives in France, mocked Mr Ahmadi Moghaddam's warning with a cartoon of a young man watching a pornographic film.
His father tries to cover up only the image of a roast chicken in the background of the film, and says: "How many times have I told you not to watch films with chicken in them?"
A photographer, Arash Ashoorinia, 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 a Twitter posting from a Shiraz resident.
Officials, worried about popular resentment, have done their best to assure irate Iranians that chicken would be in plentiful supply and at fair prices.
There have been widely announced fines for those found to be profiteering, proclamations on the provision of government-subsidised chicken for Ramadan, and reassurances that tonnes of healthy stock would soon be available at markets.
Pictures of queues of people hoping to buy government-subsidised chicken have been widely carried in state-influenced Iranian media in the last several weeks - apparently to demonstrate that the government is addressing the problem.
Officials maintain that Iran has endured more than three decades of economic sanctions and can withstand plenty more.
Some government figures, including the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have described the sanctions as a blessing that would wean the country off foreign goods and dependence on oil income.
But for now, at least, Iran's chicken industry remains dependent on the outside world. Much of the soya beans and corn fed to chickens is imported from abroad.
A veteran chicken producer in Iran blamed the price rises on government mismanagement as well as the sanctions.
"About half the chicken farms have stopped production because it has become too expensive to buy the imported raw materials," he said. There have been sharp increases in the cost of both feed and imported vaccines.
"We are so sorry about the situation but it's impossible to bring the price down. It's very upsetting for so many Iranians," he said.
With opposition activity in Iran tightly controlled, the chicken crisis, and the country's general economic distress, look unlikely for now to prompt wide protests that could challenge the government's hold on power.
Although the government's policy of supplying subsidised chicken has partially eased the problem, as a public relations gesture it risks backfiring by reminding some Iranians of the worst days of the weak economy during the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
"There are queues for chicken every day," said Ayhan, a university professor living in Tehran. "It reminds me of 1981."