Why attempts to ‘root out corruption’ are not taken seriously
This week, as the world awaited Israel’s possible annexation of Palestinian territories, Iran’s Islamic Republic remained relatively quiet about the subject. In fact in recent weeks even ‘moderate’ Arab states, such as Kuwait and Jordan, have been vocal in expressing strong opposition to this dangerous possible move.
But there are good reasons for Iran’s reticence. The country is in the midst of yet another major crisis: an ailing dictator trying to ensure his successor; an economic situation bordering on total collapse, thanks to sanctions, as well as corruption and economic mismanagement; the second wave of a pandemic is taking a terrible toll; not to forget the damaging consequences of a number of high-profile trials involving senior members of the clergy or their immediate relatives, who held or currently hold top positions in the government or the judiciary. They face accusations of multi-billion dollar corruption.
In addition, news has recently been dominated by the suicide/murder of a former judge and cleric, Gholamreza Mansouri, in Bucharest. Reports about his death appear alongside pictures of the luxury apartments and villas associated with a pending trial, where there were allegations of his involvement with other corrupt senior clerics and non-clerics, all with connections to one or another of the many factions of the Islamic Republic.
Ironically, on many news websites there are also photos of sugar workers and miners complaining of their families’ hunger – a direct result of non-payment of their wages – together with protests against privatisation. The irony lies in the fact that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, appears to be under the illusion that he presides over a ‘post-revolutionary’ government – one that came to power promising ‘equality’.
In all this mess, the highlight of the week was Khamenei’s defence of the current and former heads of the country’s judiciary: ayatollahs Ebrahim Raisi and Amoli Larijani. For many years Iranians have been aware of allegations of major corruption amongst senior figures in the judiciary. However, the arrest of Larijani’s former deputy, Akbar Tabari, in July 2019, for financial misdeeds, alongside a major financial corruption trial involving a number of senior judges accused of embezzlement and bribery in recent weeks, has led to widespread dissatisfaction amongst ordinary Iranians.
One of the co-defendants in the Tabari case was the now deceased Gholamreza Mansouri, who had been notorious for handing down long jail sentences to labour activists, journalists and political opponents of the regime. In recent years he had been in charge of investigating torture in Iranian prisons – although there were allegations that he himself had been responsible for such torture of the regime’s political opponents. With the trial looming, Mansouri left Iran – the authorities accusing him of absconding with half a million euros. He initially claimed to be in Germany for medical treatment, but just after the start of the Tabari trial last month he appeared in Bucharest.
There are reports that he visited the Iranian embassy – possibly in an attempt to negotiate a deal to allow his return to Iran. If that was the case, there was certainly no deal, as the Iranian authorities asked Interpol to help with his extradition. As a result, Mansouri was arrested. He was due to appear in a court hearing regarding his extradition on July 10, but on June 19 his body was found on the ground outside the Duke Hotel in Bucharest. Apparently he had fallen six storeys. The initial investigation suggested suicide, but since then doubts have arisen. There are reports that there was a packed suitcase in his room, suggesting that he was preparing to flee.
Hadi Shirzad, who heads Iran’s international police department, said last week that according to information supplied by Interpol, Mansouri had jumped out of his hotel window. Opponents of the regime see similarities with the death of Saeed Emami, an intelligence officer of the ministry of information who was accused of masterminding a series of political murders in Iran. He too allegedly committed suicide, in Tehran’s Evin prison, while awaiting trial in 1999. Sections of the Iranian press suggested at the time that Emami had been silenced to prevent him implicating other intelligence officers. The allegation regarding Mansouri is that he was killed to prevent him exposing accomplices in corruption scandals engulfing high-ranking government and judicial officials.
Irrespective of whether the allegations are true, no-one can doubt the willingness of Khamenei to forgive those accused of major corruption – as long as they remain loyal to him, of course. A very good example is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who with the opening of the new majles (Iran’s Islamic parliament) is the new speaker. Ghalibaf always likes to emphasise his military and political credentials – as a trained pilot, former mayor of Tehran, national police chief and head of the national anti-trafficking headquarters. However, most Iranians remember the various corruption and embezzlement allegations made against him. In 2018 the majles dealt with a motion calling for an investigation of his time as mayor of Tehran, when he allegedly granted close associates more than $500 million worth of real estate in the capital’s affluent suburbs at cut-rate prices. The parliamentary motion was dropped under pressure from conservative MPs.
The US journal Foreign Policy was quick to capitalise on Ghalibaf’s appointment as speaker of the majles. In an article headed ‘Corruption is a job qualification in today’s Iran’, we find this claim: “Iran’s new speaker of parliament is widely known for being a crook – but a loyal one.”1
However, Khamenei’s support for well known corrupt officials follows its own logic. The collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the imposition of harsh new sanctions by the United States coincide with a time when Iran is facing military setbacks in Syria and losing political allies in Iraq. The new situation has paved the way for the ascendancy of a new hard-line rightwing leadership within the regime. The era of ‘Islamic reformism’ is coming to an end.
Ebrahim Raisi – a cleric and judge notorious for his involvement in the mass murder of political prisoners in the late 1980s – is the new head of the judiciary. Raisi, who fought and lost the presidential elections of 2017, is said to be Khamenei’s favourite to become the next vali faghih (supreme leader). Raisi’s anti-corruption drive – a process that started with the sacking and then arrest of Akbar Tabari, former deputy head of the judiciary – is linked to his attempts at eliminating rivals to succeed Khamenei.
No wonder this latest attempt to ‘root out corruption’ is not taken seriously by most Iranians.