Corruption — the Mideast’s political gangrene

Corruption — the Mideast’s political gangrene

Following the strict measures taken recently by the Saudi government against dozens of prominent figures, the issue of corruption has moved to the center of public attention in several other regional countries, notably Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Corruption has always been a major cause of concern in those nations and throughout the Middle East, but people usually treat it as “one of those things” about which nothing can be done. What the Saudi move has shown in a dramatic way is that given the will, there is always a way to confront corruption.
In Afghanistan, where billions of dollars in foreign aid seem to have evaporated, the government has at long last accepted that corruption exists. A committee led by Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is supposed to delve into the matter and tell the world how bad the situation is. This may lead nowhere, but the fact that the government admits there is corruption is in itself welcome.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi has declared a “war on corruption” as the second phase in his “war on terror.” Again, all one can do is wait and see what all that means. The situation in Iran is quite different. There, people even in official organs of government publicly admit that corruption is pervasive but, so far at least, they offer no way of dealing with it.
Hardly a day passes without a revelation about embezzlement, bribery and racketeering by prominent regime figures. MP Mahmoud Sadeqi, for example, told an open session last week that corruption in Iran had now gone beyond discernible limits and become “systemic.” He said: “Corruption is no longer in just a few places, or in this or that power. It is everywhere in the executive, the judiciary and even in the legislative organ.”
MPs are not allowed to check Parliament’s accounts to find out what has been done with the budget allocated. MP Hamid Reza Hajj-Baba’i has exposed what amounts to a new budgeting trick to mask cases of “systemic corruption.” The technique consists of replacing line-item allocations with bulk allocations that give individual officials or groups of officials carte blanche to spend the money the way they see fit.
The technique is applied to the military budget, which has increased by 42 percent in the country’s latest budget, of which nearly half is allocated to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Once the treasury has disbursed the sums involved, it would be up to the IRGC to decide how to spend them.
The same technique is used for spending government subsidies, which in the new budget are allocated to each province but put under the discretion of the local governor and the Friday prayer leader, the mullah appointed by the supreme leader. They could subsidize whatever and whomever they like.
Also using the same technique, the new budget puts control of sums that Iran spends on “exporting” its revolution beyond the reach of the treasury, Parliament or even the pantomime house that pretends to be the Foreign Ministry. The money goes to the Quds Force, with its commander, Qasem Soleimani, deciding how to exercise his largesse.
The treasury no longer knows the size of the salary allocated to Hassan Nasrallah, who runs the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah under Soleimani’s leadership. The scheme has angered some even within the Iranian branch of Hezbollah. Mansur Nazari, a prominent Hezbollah figure, has denounced what he regards as “murky dealings,” presumably because the Iranian branch is not allowed the same privileges.

Hardly a day passes in Iran without a revelation about embezzlement, bribery and racketeering by prominent regime figures.

Amir Taheri

But corruption goes deeper and farther in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani’s new budget allocated almost $300 million to 30 private businesses supposed to propagate the Khomeinist brand of Islam. This is almost 30 percent more than the allocation for subsidies to universities, which are expected to raise money by charging fees or attracting private donations.
Sadeq Ziba Kalam, a Tehran university professor close to Rouhani, sees this as an “anomaly,” saying: “People should be asked whether they want to spend so much on such things, more than they spend on protecting the environment, for example.”
In the past three years, some 40 senior officials, including five bankers of the highest ranks, have fled Iran after siphoning off vast sums of money. For some reason, most have ended up in Canada. Tehran has started extradition proceedings against only one of them, encouraging rumors that the fugitives are on money-laundering missions for top figures in the regime.
“The new budget institutionalizes corruption,” said economics analyst Mehrdad Vadi’i. “It is a recipe for legal plundering of the country.” Chief Justice Sadeq Amoli is still to explain how he ended up with 46 personal bank accounts that amassed almost $500 million in just four years. His statement that the accounts are somehow linked to the judiciary and have no personal aspect has been met with derision, even by many inside the regime.
Rouhani’s brother Hussein Fereidun was arrested and charged with influence-peddling and illegal use of public resources, including lobbying to obtain banking licenses for associates. He is also accused of registering in his name some 10 million sq. meters of prime land in Kish and other islands close to the Strait of Hormuz, a charge he denies.
Add to all that the fact, publicly stated by the Interior Ministry, that the IRGC maintains 25 jetties in a number of ports through which it can import and export whatever it likes without the government knowing about it. Meanwhile, self-made billionaire Babak Zanjani, in jail for shady dealings on oil deals, has revealed that he helped the Khomeini family build a portfolio of $8 billion in Dubai.
According to Hashemi Shahrudi, the new head of the Expediency Council, Iranian fat cats — mostly mullahs and their security associates — have more than $700 billion invested abroad. The key problem in Iran is perhaps not a separation of mosque and state, but a separation of business and politics.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
• Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
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