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Rohani Corruption Spat Could Herald Rough-And-Tumble Iranian Presidential Campaign


Iranian President Hassan Rohani (left) and judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani (right, with parliament speaker Ali Larijani in between) have traded barbs over the arrest of a billionaire.

President Hassan Rohani has traded barbs with hard-line officials from Iran's judiciary in a highly public spat in which each side appears determined to tar the other with accusations of corruption in an election year.

The feud appears to have been smoldering since the president's rise to power in 2013 on calls for reform and the arrest of one of Iran's wealthiest men, Babak Zanjani, months after Rohani took office.

It was reignited last month, when Rohani obliquely attacked the judiciary's competence, and elicited seemingly unprecedented challenges this week when hard-liners urged Rohani to disclose past fundraising and to help bring his brother in for questioning.

Rohani tweeted on January 3 that his government was "ready to create a website and clarify all of its spending and accounts" but demanded that "in return, the judiciary is expected to clarify all of its accounts."

A spokesman for the powerful judiciary countered by intimating that the president was "using the debate about transparency as a tool" in the face of a reelection bid, and dozens of parliament deputies the same day demanded that Rohani's brother face "financial corruption charges."

Where's The Money?

In December, Rohani questioned the judiciary's handling of the case against Zanjani, who has been sentenced to death for stealing more than $2 billion from the government through crooked oil sales during the administration of former hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Even though the judiciary had already issued a sentence, Rohani said, "people still want to know where is the money and who has helped him."

The case is particularly sensitive because the thefts occurred during tough economic times made more difficult by international sanctions, some of which were lifted as part of a deeply divisive nuclear agreement struck in 2015 between Tehran and world powers.

Conservatives and hard-liners have yet to commit to a challenger to face Rohani in the May election, but many of them staunchly opposed the nuclear deal, on which Rohani has staked considerable political capital.

Rohani suggested that a lack of transparency and a failure to answer the public's questions in the Zanjani case risk losing "a more important thing than $3 billion, and that is public trust as social capital." He said the Intelligence Ministry should have investigated the case before sending it to a court.

"People expect the matter to become clear," Rohani said, according to the transcript of his comments posted on his website. http://president.ir/fa/97072

Where's YOUR Money?

The head of the judiciary, an appointed post independent of the Justice Ministry, was quick to hit back. Speaking on January 2, Sadegh Larijani said Zanjani claimed that he had contributed to Rohani's election campaign.

"Babak Zanjani has said that he has helped the election of the president with millions of tomans," Larijani said, a reference to a superunit of Iran's national currency, the rial. But, he added, "We don't consider all his comments fully true; he talks a lot and makes many allegations."

Larijani said the judiciary could summon all the individuals against whom Zanjani has leveled accusations and arrest them, if need be.

"They say people should know where the money has been spent," Larijani said. "By the way, we're also after the same thing: finding out where the money has been spent. Where is the presidential office's money spent?"

That's when Rohani fired back on Twitter, expressing willingness to create a system for transparency in all its spending and accounts, and that the judiciary should, too.

"Every institution must act within the scope of its own powers and responsibilities and respond to public opinion," Rohani told his Twitter followers.

Unconfirmed reports have claimed in recent weeks that Larijani -- part of a powerful political family that includes brothers who are parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and a senior official on human rights within the judiciary -- controls more than 60 private bank accounts filled with public funds. Iran's state prosecutor has said that all of the judiciary's accounts are in order and that some of the fund transfers have been done with the knowledge of the country's supreme leader.

Transparent Or Secretive?

Rohani's tweets prompted a reaction by a spokesman for the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, who said on January 4 that the judiciary's accounts were "transparent" and that lawmakers had seen "documents" proving it.

Mohseni-Ejei then suggested that the government was not forthright in all its dealings and that Rohani's call for transparency was a campaign tactic ahead of May's presidential election. He cited the 2015 nuclear agreement as an example, saying some details of the deal were only "leaked" later.

Mohseni-Ejei urged the government to disclose Rohani's campaign spending from 2013 and where the money came from.

The ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan seemed to side with Mohseni-Ejei, suggesting that Rohani talks loudly about the need for transparency despite heading what it said is a "government of secrets."

The pro-reform daily Etemad said Rohani's tweets demonstrated the government's "serious determination" and argued that his readiness to show transparency was "unprecedented."

Meanwhile, on January 4, more than 46 lawmakers called on Rohani to present his brother, Hossein Fereydoun, to the judiciary to face "financial corruption charges."

That demand echoed recent statements by Rohani's rivals in which they accused Fereydoun -- a member of the president's inner circle who has been called his "eyes and ears" -- of corruption.

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