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Source: Al Monitor

May 4, 2023

Iran official sacked as fears of China's economic influence grow

While the comment infuriated the sitting government, to many it was an honest slip of the tongue about the extent of the crisis in Iran's cash-strapped economy, stirring up also speculation on Chinese "colonial-style" influence.

TEHRAN — A senior official at Iran's Labor Ministry was sacked after he drew the anger of his superiors with remarks on the severity of Iran's economic crisis and how it may force the government to sell off valuable territory.

"We once lost 300,000 martyrs not to lose a handspan of our territory," the official, Sajjad Padam, said in an interview published by the economic outlet Navad-e Eghtesadi earlier this week. "But now we are reaching a point where we may have to sell off the [tourist] Kish and Qeshm islands and even the [oil-rich] Khuzestan province."

As director for social insurance at Iran's Labor Ministry, Padam was underlining the crisis in Iran's pension funds system, which consecutive administrations have been grappling with. He compared the situation to that of Greece, "which had to sell out some 100 islands to clear its debt. … We will be just heading toward that path."

More than one-fourth of Iran's 85 million population is formed by pensioners, who are covered by 18 cash-strapped state-run funds.

Following the backlash triggered by the release of the interview, the official noted in a new video message that his comments were being twisted and taken out of context and that he had meant to call for reforms to avert collapse.

Yet to no avail, as the Labor Ministry issued a statement late on Wednesday announcing Padam's dismissal over "the controversial and false" comments.

"I am gone anyway, but you tended not to like honesty, frankness, transparency and reform," Padam wrote following his removal, noting later, however, that the latest message was for the media, which he accused of misrepresenting the saga.

The remarks on the pension funds crisis came against the backdrop of monthslong and still ongoing protests by Iran's retirees and pensioners, who are on the streets almost on a daily basis to complain that payments are no match for the all-time high 50% inflation.

"Cut down on embezzlement and our problems will be resolved," protesters chanted in one such rally in Tehran on Tuesday.

'Bitter truth' and 'China colonization' 

The official's remarks and his subsequent dismissal were met with mixed reactions on social media. To some, it was the price he had to pay for telling the "bitter truth."  

"They did not allow the warning to be heard," one person tweeted, arguing that ordinary people will be the ones ultimately bearing the brunt of the government's policies.  

To more fierce critics, it was all an honest slip of the tongue. They argued that the government was indeed taking steps behind the scenes for major concessions and ceding territory to such powers as China, all for the sake of survival.  

It further stirred up debates about growing Chinese influence and economic investment in Iran following the "25-year strategic partnership" deal that Tehran finalized with Beijing in 2021.  

At the time, even lawmakers complained of having been "bypassed" in the "secretive" agreement, uncertainties about which have yet to be put to rest two years on.

Speculation is still rife that under the same agreement, southern Iranian islands — named in the sacked official's remarks — could eventually turn into Chinese "colonies." Iranian officials have denied such interpretations, yet they have failed to alleviate the concerns either.  

"Time has now come for a close look at the content of the China-Iran partnership deal," an Iranian tweeted in sarcastic reference to the territory-ceding comments.  

"China is an expert in throwing other countries into the debt trap," another tweeted, as he thanked the sacked official for his "honesty."  

The continuation of Tehran-Beijing ties in the current fashion "will render Iran a Chinese colony," he predicted. 

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