In recent weeks, a campaign against the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation has been running on Iranian social media networks. It protests the money that the foundation gives to impoverished Muslims worldwide, especially in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Founded shortly after the Islamic Revolution to help the poor and needy in the Islamic Republic, the Relief Foundation has become one of the largest and most significant charitable institutions in Iran, helping hundreds of thousands of families. The tempestuous reactions to the campaign testify to increasing public criticism against channeling Iranian aid out of the country, rather than relieving the distress of Iranian citizens.
At the beginning of Ramadan in mid-May, Iranian media outlets – primarily those affiliated with expatriate opponents of the regime – and social media users posted pictures and videos showing the Foundation distributing iftar meals to 300,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. These reports provoked widespread public opposition in Iran, claiming that the Foundation, whose budget is largely based on donations from citizens through charity collection boxes located across Iran, is dispersing its funds in Gaza and Lebanon, while Iranian citizens suffer from economic distress and sometimes cannot even afford to buy basic food and clothing. “While the Iranians are selling their kidneys for bread, the Palestinian media reports that the Relief Foundation distributes daily meals to 300,000 people in Gaza.” Some users quoted a famous Persian proverb: “A lamp permitted for use at home is prohibited for use in the mosque” (چراغی که به خانه رواست به مسجد حرام است) to support their position.
Shortly after the reports were published, a campaign was launched on Iranian social mediawith the headline “No to the Relief Foundation,” which succeeded in gaining several thousand users. The campaign included uploading photographs taken at many locations across Iran depicting vandalized collection boxes, and other boxes or models made for symbolic use discarded in trash cans.
The campaign against the Relief Foundation drew angry reactions from senior Iranian officials, who denied the claims that its funds were being used for needy people outside of Iran. The head of the foundation, Parviz Fattah, stated that the use of the Foundation’s money to aid needy people outside Iran, for example in Yemen, Lebanon or Palestine, violates both national and religious law, and that the Foundation is not even permitted to transfer money from one city to another within Iran. He claimed that funds used for Palestinians in Gaza comes from donations that citizens place in collection boxes designated specifically for that purpose. He added that the Foundation does not transfer money donated for domestic purposes overseas, but rather transmits knowledge and experience to countries around the world, including non-Muslim countries, to help them establish similar local charities.
Several members of the Iranian parliament (Majlis) also expressed support for the Foundation. Majlis speaker Ali Larijani rejected criticism of the Foundation’s activities and praised its efforts to help Iranian citizens. Majlis member Nader Ghazipour supported Fattah’s statement, claiming that, contrary to the media items disseminated by “anti-revolutionaries and Zionists,” the Iranian aid fund does not send any money abroad.
The reformist press also criticized the campaign, even though it sometimes takes a critical stance towards the regime’s policies. In a commentary published in the newspaper E‘temad, the campaign was called “inhumane” and claimed that participants were seeking to widen the gap between the government and the people and divide Iranian society, but are not really interested in social issues or the problems of the citizens. It further claimed that the campaign would have no effect, and might even increase the citizens’ donations to the charity. “If citizens previously considered donations to the Relief Foundation a religious and human obligation, they might now see it as a national and political duty as well,” the article claimed. This contention was supported by a counter-campaign mounted by supporters of the regime, who called upon citizens to increase their contributions to the Foundation, in order to express their support for its activities. “I will help until the eyes of people who say: ‘No to the Relief Foundation,’ pop out,” tweeted one user. Other users even posted a link to the Foundation’s website in order to encourage the public to contribute to it. 
In order to express support for the Palestinian struggle in particular, users uploaded photographs showing citizens donating to the Foundation’s collection boxes designated for the benefit of Palestinians in Gaza during World Jerusalem Day, which was marked in Iran on June 8 (observed annually on the last Friday of Ramadan). “If only the agents connected to the foreign media were present for the Jerusalem Day processions today, to see the fasting citizens who enthusiastically donated to the collection boxes of the Relief Foundation to help the oppressed Palestinian people,” one user tweeted.
This is not the first time in recent years that the Iranian public has expressed its reservations about Iranian investments outside the country. During the wave of protests across Iran in December 2017–January 2018, some demonstrators protested Iran’s continued support of the Syrian regime and terrorist organizations at the expense of Iranian citizens. Similar calls were heard during the merchants’ protest, which erupted at the end of June in the Tehran bazaar. This sentiment was even expressed on World Jerusalem Day this year, when a viral video shared on social media showed a young cleric holding a sign that read: “I wish we had a day to express our support for the oppressed people of Iran (and not for others).”
It is difficult to assess the extent to which the campaign against the Relief Foundation reflects the stance of the Iranian public. However, the turbulent reactions it aroused, and the need for senior regime officials to deny reports of that the Foundation uses its funds to aid the residents of Gaza attest to growing public sensitivity to diverting Iranian resources beyond its borders. This is a result of worsening economic distress, especially among the weaker population sectors, and the failure of the nuclear agreement, which put an end to hopes for a significant improvement in the economic situation of most Iranian citizens, and increasing public frustration. This is clearly reflected in the discourse on social media and the slogans heard during recent protests around the country.
“Distributing meals to break the fast, donated by the Relief Foundation, to Palestinians,” INRA, 18 May 2018.
 “What money did the Relief Foundation use to supply meals for breaking the fast to residents of Gaza,” Mashregh News, 4 June 2018.
 “Two Majlis members support the Relief Foundation,” Khabar Online, 12 June 2018.
 “Plot against the Relief Foundation,” E‘temad, June 10, 2018.