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Iran's Gold-Plated 'Koran Ship' Hits Squalls

Still reeling from social protests, Iran showed off a gold-covered, Koran-inscribed ship bound for a shrine in neighboring Iraq.

A 70-kilogram, gold-plated replica of a ship inscribed with the entire Koran wowed clerics at its unveiling in Iran's holy city of Qom this week.

But some Iranians are shuddering at the opulence on display at the Fatima Masumeh Shrine within weeks of deadly protests that even Iran's president has acknowledged were stoked by public despair over economic injustices.

Moreover, Qom is reportedly just a stopover before the gilded artwork is gifted to an even holier shrine in neighboring Iraq: the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala.

Iranians in the country and abroad suggested on social media that the money could have been better spent, and they questioned the timing.

"A gilded Koran! On a golden ship! You unveiled it?! After people's unrest over the pressure of poverty and unemployment?!" user M. Masoumian asked on Twitter. "Now where did you learn this statecraft?"

Starting in late December, sometimes-violent protests erupted in dozens of Iranian cities, with chants targeting the political leaders and the country's clerically dominated system led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At least 22 deaths were reported in connection with around 10 days of intense unrest. At least two more Iranians are thought to have died in custody, and thousands of people were detained in the streets or in security roundups.

It was Iran's biggest outbreak of demonstrations in nearly a decade. Officials mostly blamed "foreign enemies" but also shut down some of Iranians' favorite social-media platforms.

The ship is bound for the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.
The ship is bound for the Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.

But President Hassan Rohani conceded in some of his first public remarks after the protests began that "one of [the protesters' problems] is the economy."

Ali Asghar Musavian, the artist behind the gold-plated ship, was quoted as saying he was inspired by Khamenei's call for innovation in Koranic art.

Iranians news agencies reported that the ship was destined for the Iraqi shrine to Imam Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson and the first imam of Shi'ite Islam.

"You could have at least let a month pass before unveiling the #Gilded_Koran," self-described "left-Islamic" user Amir Mohammad Shabani tweeted in an apparent reference to the protests and rioting.

But at least some of the indignation was a consequence of other social problems, including the destruction from a recent earthquake, decades-old scars of a war with Iraq, and pollution.

“People affected by [November's] earthquake in Kermanshah still don’t have [shelters] to live in. The walls of the city of Khoramshahr [in southwestern Iran] are still full of shrapnel holes [from the 1980-88 war with Iraq]. People in Ahwaz breathe dust into their lungs. So much more pain and suffering and you build a #Gilded_Koran? You’re seriously not ashamed?” Ali Kazemi tweeted.

Criticism also came from prominent dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

Panahi, who received a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on directing movies in 2010, posted a video for his 300,000-plus Instagram followers that juxtaposed images of the gilded Koran, with clerics inspecting it, with photos of poor Iranians, including children, sorting through the trash in a search for food.

New York-based researcher Azin Mohajerin argued that the gilded ship sailed in the face of the "resistance economy" promoted by Khamenei as a means to improve Iranian self-reliance and reduce dependence on oil revenues.

"While [authorities] use people’s money to build a #Gilded_ship, Article 16 of #resistance_economy [calls for] saving on public spending and elimination of excessive costs. If building a golden ship is not an unnecessary cost then what is it?" Mohajerin tweeted.

Iranian authorities have not publicly reacted to the controversy.