Corruption cases tarnish image of Iran’s hard-line president

Corruption cases tarnish image of Iran’s hard-line president

13 Jul 2022 (The Washington Post)

A luxury-building collapse, a grain-import swindle, an incompetent minister accused of nepotism — a string of cases linked to government corruption has cast a grim light on the year-old presidency of Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line judge who came to power promising to clean up the system.

The cases — some involving government ministries or implicating high officials — have stoked popular anger at a moment when Iranians are reeling from rising prices and an economic downturn, conditions caused by a combination of Western sanctions, an accelerating global economic crisis and the government’s removal of subsidies on basic goods.

“Mister President, does this corruption with this large volume eventually have an end point or no?” Seyed Morteza Hosseini, a member of parliament, said two weeks ago, referring to recent accusations that a private company with an Agriculture Ministry contract to import wheat and barley never delivered the goods, despite being paid.

The allegations have been especially embarrassing for Raisi, who campaigned last year on an anti-corruption platform in an election in which most of the competition was sidelined and less than half of the electorate voted. Now, the credentials of some of his political allies are being called into question by lawmakers and the public.

In late March, a branch of the Agriculture Ministry signed a contract with a private company called Ario Tejarat Soheil to import 13.7 million tons of livestock goods, with the company subsequently selling 500,000 tons of it.

None of the goods were ever delivered to buyers, Zabihollah Khodaian, the head of the General Inspection Organization, a government watchdog, said during a judiciary meeting in late June, according to Mizan, the judiciary’s news site.

He said ministry officials wrote a letter to the Central Bank claiming that the importation of the goods had been completed and asking that $735 million be transferred to the private company.

The head of the department that had arranged the deal was ousted in late June, according to state media.

“I hope the government realizes that what happened in the Agriculture Ministry isn’t only economic corruption but an action against the food security of the country,” a Twitter user named Hassan Sadeghinejad said in a post last month.

That controversy followed a shake-up at the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare in mid-June. For months, critics had been accusing Cooperatives Minister Hojatollah Abdolmaleki of hiring friends and family members to work at the agency, a charge he denied, according to state media. Abdolmaleki was also accused of not doing enough to address protests by teachers, retirees, bus drivers and laborers who have been hit hard by the country’s dismal economic situation.

On June 13, Abdolmaleki resigned, tweeting that he had stepped down to increase “coordination” in the government. He was the first minister to resign since Raisi took office last August.

In a parliament session in May, lawmaker Seyed Naser Mousavi Laregani said that Abdolmaleki had lacked experience and that choosing him for the post was “an injustice to the government and the country,” according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

The case that was most damaging to Raisi’s reputation, however, was the collapse in southwestern Iran of a luxury 10-story commercial building into an avalanche of rocks and debris on top of dozens of people.

Crowds of anguished friends and relatives gathered at the site seeking news of their loved ones, only to discover that the local emergency services had barely started rescue work. Civilians clawed through the rubble with bare hands and rudimentary tools in search of survivors.

The May 23 collapse of the Metropol building in Abadan, which is in restive Khuzestan province, was mourned as a national tragedy at the time, but when reports emerged that the municipality had a financial stake in the building and that construction had proceeded despite warnings from supervising engineers, the case quickly came to symbolize official wrongdoing.

Enraged crowds held protests for several days in Abadan, chanting slogans against local authorities and the central government, while security forces retaliated with tear gas and arrests. The official death toll in the building collapse was 43, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency, but locals claimed that many more people were still buried under the rubble.

Among the dead was the politically connected owner of the building, Hossein Abdolbaghi, officials said, although, in a measure of the deep distrust of the government, many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of faking his death as a way to avoid arresting him.State media has since reported that 14 people associated with the building have been arrested, including the serving mayor and at least two former mayors, along with engineers supervising the project.

Last Friday, two well-known film directors, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, were arrested for “creating insecurity” after the Metropol collapse, according to state media. The two were among dozens of filmmakers who signed an open letter asking security forces to lay down their weapons rather than attack protesters in the aftermath of the collapse.

Famed director Jafar Panahi, who also signed the open letter, was arrested Monday when he went to a Tehran judiciary building to check on Rasoulof’s case, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency, which did not cite a reason for Panahi’s arrest.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement of condolence in the collapse — but not until three days afterward, fueling a perception that the country’s leaders are out of touch.

The problems with the Metropol building were hardly a secret while it was being built. After talking to engineers supervising the construction, Saeed Hafezi, an Iranian journalist now living in Germany, posted a video online in 2020 saying the building would collapse.

“The engineers told me there are errors in the way the columns are calculated and the building has no foundation and it will collapse,” Hafezi said.

The blame for the Metropol collapse and other recent scandals has fallen on Raisi’s government, but they have for many become a symbol of a deeper rot, prominent lawyer Saleh Nikbakht said in a telephone interview from Tehran.

“In the Islamic republic, these types of issues aren’t something that appear once and are dealt with,” he said. “It’s not the first time or the last time that something like this has happened. This could happen in any city or any province.”