Many Iranians believe the country's miserable economic situation is a byproduct of mismanagement and widespread corruption at the top.
Iran, the world's third-largest oil exporter, sold its crude last week for $136 a barrel. So the question on the lips of people in the streets is: Where's all this money going?
The answer, it seems, lies at the top.
Though Iranians are traditionally suspicious of their government and believe corruption is always in fashion among the ruling class, it was a little-known government functionary who kindled the fire of the public's latest obsession with suspected high-level corruption.
Abbas Palizdar claimed to be a member of the body commissioned by parliament to probe the judiciary. In late May, in a speech and interviews, he accused senior religious leaders and politicians, including former President Ali Abkhar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, of deep involvement in corruption.
Palizdar's remarks not only landed him in jail, they sparked a storm of controversy that continues to rage. He reiterated his charges on June 9 in an interview with Radio Farda.
"Yes, I spoke based on documents and evidence [that I have]," he said. "There are many more cases that I will reveal in the future. Everything that I said -- if [the government] didn't add anything to it -- is based on proof and documents."
Palizdar's accusations took many people by surprise.
At first, no one even acknowledged knowing him. Officials then called him an imposter, claiming no one had been assigned to probe the judiciary. A few days later, after he reiterated his accusations to the media, Palizdar was arrested and charged with spreading lies and slander.
At the same time, the Inspector-General's Office acknowledged that members of the Majlis, or parliament, had in fact presented Palizdar to the judiciary for the purpose of having him inspect and probe their legal records.
The incident became the talk of the country. In Tehran, some 200 protesters gathered in support of Palizdar, many of them briefly detained after clashing with police. Meanwhile, judiciary officials announced that 11 people, most of them government employees, had been indicted, and some arrested, in connection with Palizdar's comments.Weapons Of Political Struggle
It all provided grist to the mill for those who are convinced that the ruling class -- in any guise and garb -- is corrupt. They say Palizdar's comments revealed nothing new. Others, however, claim that his comments were part of a conspiracy by a group in the government aimed at discrediting their rivals.
Some went even further, specifying that Palizdar's remarks were the first step in a bid by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his military supporters to smear rivals and prevent them from running in future elections by targeting them as corrupt.
Nehmat Ahmadi, a well-known lawyer in Tehran, tells Radio Farda that Palizdar either has powerful backing in the government or a very strong death wish.
"What he says is a kind of suicide," Ahmadi says. "If he wants to kill himself, that's natural. He knows that they will take him and put him in jail -- and that if they don't kill him, he will face a very harsh punishment."
Former President Rafsanjani is still a very influential political force (AFP)
True or false, conspiracy or not, the accusations made by Palizdar seemed to gain a life of their own in recent days, becoming a red-hot subject of attack and counterattack for all political factions against each other.
Some analysts say this incident has brought to the surface the most important political issue in today's Iran: that is, the bitter power struggle between "old" and "new" revolutionary conservatives.
"The Iranian neoconservatives -- the new generation of conservatives that after the second election of city councils appeared on Iran's political scene -- took over the seventh parliament and grabbed the presidency," says Hossein Bastani, an exiled Iranian journalist who edits a popular Persian website in Paris. "This is a generation that feels they are there to radically change the structure of the Islamic republic and give the most important jobs to those whom they consider competent -- not the old, traditional conservatives."
Palizdar's corruption allegations singled out some of Iran's most influential religious figures, whom devoted Iranians consider pillars of the revolution. Professor Fereidoon Khavand, who teaches economics in Paris, says such talk is making Iran's economic situation worse because it weakens the confidence of merchants and local investors. In his opinion, the controversy is a key example of why religious leaders should stay out of the political fray.
"Shi'ism is a part of Iranian identity, whether we like it or not," Khavand says. "I was deeply sorry when I saw that the names of the most important religious leaders are mentioned as allegedly taking part in activities such as possession of mines and cars, favoritism, bribery, and so on. All this confirms that giving religion a role in political affairs is a bad idea."Corrupt System Of Ownership
But Ahmadi, the lawyer, sees positives in the affair. He says regardless of whether the accusations were politically motivated, they have shone a light on an unseemly side of Iran's political and economic system.
"We could find [the roots] of corruption in the ownership system of Iran," he says. "The government owns everything: water, power, land, and sea. Everything you can imagine. In a system of ownership like that, corruption comes naturally."
Meanwhile, some want to see Palizdar's accusations investigated further. Borna, a government news agency, asked, "Why is nobody concentrating on the accusations while attacking Palizdar's background and personality?"
Khavand also thinks further investigation is warranted. "Corruption is a byproduct, a secondary thing," he says. "What is behind the corruption is Iran's economic and political system. Those are more important. So instead of focusing on why he [Palizdar] said such things and what are the sources, I guess we have to find out why corruption has such a wide dimension in Iran."
Last week, the fiercest battle of ideas about corruption and Palizdar's comments took place between Ahmadinejad's presumptive rival in next year presidential election and newspapers such as "Kayhan," which strongly back the hard-line president.
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the charismatic mayor of Tehran, wrote in his blog that "just talking about corruption and accusing people without any basis is by itself corruption and the main crisis of today's Iran is that morality is absent from the political scene."
In response, pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers attacked Qalibaf. But they may have missed a key sentence he also wrote: "Don't chop down a tree branch if you're sitting on it."