A recent IMF Working Paper by staff of the Middle East and Central Asia Department, "Iran — The Chronicles of the Subsidy Reform,"  analyses the December 2010 changes in subsidies of domestic energy and agricultural prices, which increased about 20 times, making it the first major oil-exporting country to reduce substantially implicit energy subsidies.
Their paper reviews the economic and technical issues involved in the planning and early implementation of the reform, including the transfers to households and the public relations campaign that were critical to the success of the reform. It also looks at the reform from a chronological standpoint, in particular in the final phases of the preparation. The paper concludes by an overview of the main challenges for the second phase of the reform.
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On Saturday, December 18, 2010, at 9:00 p.m. Tehran time, speaking in a televised “conversation with the nation”, President Ahmadinejad announced the start of what he termed the most sweeping economic “surgery” in Iran’s modern history. Just after midnight on December 19, Iranian media began releasing announcements detailing the new price structure for liquid fuels. Within twenty-four hours, new natural gas, electricity, and water tariffs were published, and allowable ceilings for the increase in taxi and public transport tariffs followed. At the time, close to 80 percent of Iran’s population was granted unrestricted access to compensatory payments that had been deposited in specially-created bank accounts starting in October 2010.
The reform, officially referred to as Targeted Subsidies Reform, made Iran the first major energy producing and exporting country to cut drastically massive indirect subsidies to energy products and replace them with across the board energy dividend transfers to the population. It is estimated that the price increases removed close to US$50–US$60 billion dollars in annual product subsidies. By December 2011, in the first 12 months following the price increase, Iranian households will have received at least US$30 billion in freely usable cash, and another $10–$15 billion will have been advanced to enterprises to finance investment in restructuring aimed at reducing energy intensity.
Although oil and gas production has accounted for an increasingly smaller share of real GDP, oil and gas revenues remain the main source of foreign exchange earnings and fiscal revenues. The share of oil in real GDP fell from an average of 40 percent of real GDP in the 1960s to about 10½ percent in the last decade, reflecting average annual non-oil GDP growth rate of 5.7 percent compared to only 4.4 percent for oil and gas GDP. Oil and gas receipts accounted for about 72 percent of export revenues in the last decade, despite rapid non-oil export growth. Oil and gas revenues also account for 65 percent of fiscal revenues, and are likely to remain the main source of financing for development projects in the foreseeable future notwithstanding recent efforts to diversify fiscal revenues.
Iran’s high dependence on oil export revenues has had a profound impact on its business cycle. In the most recent business cycle during 2002-2008, fiscal spending and credit growth increased at the same time as export revenues and oil prices, resulting in an overheating of the economy and a surge in inflation. The subsequent tighter monetary and fiscal policies coincided with the sharp fall in oil exports caused by the international recession of 2008-2009. As a result, inflation and output declined sharply.
Domestic energy prices have historically been set administratively in Iran, as in the majority of oil exporting countries. They were set at a level high enough to cover production costs and have been changed only occasionally. This worked well when international oil prices were relatively stable and low, and close to production costs. However, when international prices began to rise after 2002, low domestic energy prices became increasingly out of line with the market value of oil. In addition, high domestic rates of inflation and subsequent exchange rate depreciations contributed to further erode domestic energy prices vis-à-vis their international benchmarks. The March 2002 unification of exchange rates and the resulting rial depreciation also accentuated a growing disparity between domestic and international energy prices.
Increasingly cheaper energy stimulated demand, making Iran the country with the highest level of energy subsidy. Not surprisingly, domestic energy use and energy intensity in Iran, as in many other energy producing countries, increased rapidly. Cheap domestic energy prices led to a rapid increase in domestic energy consumption. As a result, Iran became one of the most energy-intensive economies in the world. The high domestic absorption of crude oil distillates, natural gas, and electricity reduced the availability of these energy products for the export market. Iranian oil energy companies were also increasingly starved of funds needed for investment since domestic energy prices were set at barely cost recovery levels. Environmental pollution and its impact on human health, as well as the time lost due to traffic congestion on Iranian roads provided additional urgency for the reform. Not surprisingly, by 2007 some analysts started questioning not only Iran’s plans to increase its oil production capacity, but also its ability to stop a decline in oil production and exports.
The Iranian authorities were clear from the outset that the main reform objective was to reduce waste and rationalize consumption. By compensating households for the energy price increases, most consumers would be better off because the higher energy price would discourage some marginal gasoline consumption, while the cash compensation would allow consumers to buy more other goods and services.
The reform would also improve social equity in the distribution of Iran’s hydrocarbon wealth. For the poor who benefited little for cheap domestic energy price, the compensation would represent a large share of their income, lifting virtually every Iranian out of poverty. This gave the government a powerful public relations and moral argument in support of the reform.
The likely large substitution effect triggered by large price increases could provide a significant stimulus to Iran’s domestic production and further diversification efforts, particularly given the slow growth in recent years, and relatively high, double-digit unemployment. The distribution of about $30 billion in annual compensatory payments directly to the population would support domestic demand and nonenergy sector growth. The reform was not expected to contribute to fiscal consolidation. The reform legislation, and the political debate that preceded it, ruled out using the reduction of energy subsidies to improve the country’s fiscal balance. To the contrary, Iranian reforms, including the privatization program launched in 2006, aimed at reducing the size and the role of the public sector in the economy. However, potential large savings in domestic energy use could make significant quantities of crude oil and refined products available for exports (Box 2). The revenue from such exports could support a virtuous cycle of investment in the energy sector that would add production and refining capacity and further increase exports.
 Dominique Guillaume, Roman Zytek, and Mohammad Reza Farzin: Iran — The Chronicles of the Subsidy Reform. July 2011.