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Analysis: Corruption Becomes An Issue In Iran's Presidential Campaign

  • Bill Samii

http://gdb.rferl.org/60973A61-E473-4E21-B24A-3F7DC430CE45_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/60973A61-E473-4E21-B24A-3F7DC430CE45_mw800_mh600.jpg Widespread Iranian concern about financial and professional corruption is reflected by the fact that most prospective candidates for the upcoming presidential election have addressed this issue. Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli has said the unity of Iran is threatened by corruption, nepotism, and favoritism, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 4 April, and that the next president's greatest duty is to address these issues.

Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces candidate Ali Larijani likewise stressed corruption and economic issues during campaign speeches over the Nowruz holiday. And Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad said during a visit last month to Ahvaz that the government should fight all forms of corruption, "Hemayat" reported on 13 March.

Corruption is not merely a word for candidates to throw around during their campaigns. Iran is rampantly corrupt, according to Transparency International's most recent report (http://www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004.en.html#cpi2004). That survey placed Iran 87th of 145 countries in terms of the degree of corruption "as seen by business people and country analysts." Iran ranked 2.9 on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to zero (highly corrupt).
Weaknesses in the law are another reason for extensive corruption. There are many loopholes that corrupt individuals can exploit. The involvement of state officials in business affairs, furthermore, is not forbidden.


The Payam Airport smuggling case raises questions regarding the government's seriousness about attacking corruption. Arrests were made in October after authorities learned that Customs Administration officials at Payam Airport, near Karaj, were allegedly cooperating in the illegal shipment of goods from Dubai and other international locations. Tehran parliamentarian Alireza Zakani, however, said four months later that the main defendant in the case remains at large, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 27 February.

The cases of Shahram Jazayeri and Nasser Vaez-Tabasi also raise questions about the government's seriousness. Jazayeri was the central defendant in a major corruption case involving 50 defendants, many of them sons of prominent clerics known colloquially as "aqazadeh." In September 2004 his 27-year prison sentence was partially overturned, and he is occasionally released from prison on leave. Vaez-Tabasi, the son of the head of the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation (Astan-i Qods-i Razavi), was immediately released after his July 2001 arrest for allegedly illegally selling shares in a state-owned enterprise. He and his co-defendants were acquitted in March 2003 on the grounds that they were ignorant of the law.

These and other prominent corruption cases grab headlines for a while and then fade away. Kermanshah parliamentary representative Abdul Reza Mesri, according to "Hambastegi" on 20 December, asked on 19 December: "While reports on economic corruption are regularly published in the country, why is nothing heard about the punishment of corrupt persons?"

One reason for the lack of follow-up on these cases is that the press is heavily politicized. Conservative newspapers such as "Kayhan," "Resalat," and "Jomhuri-yi Islami" are quick to accuse reformist political figures of wrongdoing. Often they do this by citing anonymous sources, and in other cases they quote people selectively and out of context. Pro-reform newspapers, motivated by professional ethics or a sense of self-preservation, are more cautious, as the press court is more likely to punish them.

Another reason relates to the general lack of accountability. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the state took control of the economy and parastatal organizations (bonyad) were created to promote social welfare and restore economic justice. Yet these foundations, as well as some other state institutions, do not answer to the government or to shareholders, and parliamentary investigations have been unproductive. The findings of a parliamentary investigation of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) in the 1990s were never released to the public. A May 2003 parliamentary report on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) ended without result, although it found major infractions, such as concealing revenues and failure to pay duties and taxes. The head of IRIB at the time, the same Ali Larijani who is now running for president, denied all the allegations and nothing came of the case.

Weaknesses in the law are another reason for extensive corruption. There are many loopholes that corrupt individuals can exploit. The involvement of state officials in business affairs, furthermore, is not forbidden.

This is one area that could be in for a change. Hojatoleslam Abdolreza Izadpanah, spokesman for the Headquarters for Fighting Economic Corruption, said in mid-March that efforts to reform laws on trade, taxation, foreign investment, and money laundering reflect an effort to attack corruption, "Mardom Salari" reported on 17 March. A proposed bill on privatization, he said, would prohibit the involvement of public-sector employees -- including those from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the Guardians Council, the Expediency Council, the military, and provincial organizations -- in government transactions.

Iranians are likely to welcome serious efforts to end corruption, but the government has failed to produce any so far. Public pressure on elected officials, especially during the months before the presidential election, could change this situation.
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