Iran Pulse

Will bill to protect Iranian whistleblowers really expose corruption?

Article Summary
While some Iranian lawmakers’ efforts to help whistleblowers expose corruption should be welcomed, such initiatives are not likely to achieve their stated goals as long as a comprehensive strategy is not defined and implemented.

With the signatures of 94 lawmakers, a bill has been presented to the Iranian parliament’s presiding board, titled, “Support for Whistleblowers of Economic and Administrative Corruption.” If approved by the presiding board, the bill could become law and facilitate the government campaign to fight corruption.

Tackling corruption has been on the Iranian government's agenda since the mid-2000s. In fact, the abovementioned bill was initiated based on a 2008 law, “Promotion of Administrative Compliance.” However, the net result of the various anti-corruption initiatives — including regular meetings between the heads of the three branches of power — have not borne any fruit. In 2014, President Hassan Rouhani even went as far as calling corruption a “national security threat” to the survival of the Islamic Republic. Representatives of the business community have also pointed to corruption and mismanagement as the most significant threats to the country’s economy. According to Transparency International’s corruption index, the situation in Iran has deteriorated in the past few years; in 2018, Iran ranked 138 out of 180 countries. 

There is no doubt that the failure in pushing back against corrupt practices is rooted in a number of political, legal and cultural realities. Similar to other crises in Iran, there has been a wealth of studies and analyses in the country on the root causes of growing corruption. Phenomena such as the availability of government rents, the size of the government, legal and administrative deficiencies, social and cultural realities, and economic shortcomings have been recognized for decades, but the political elite has been unable or unwilling to address these issues.

On the other hand, a recent study published in Khorasan News identified a number of reasons why the public does not report corrupt practices:

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  • The process of registering such a crime is too complicated;
  • It is too difficult to provide evidence;
  • The authorities do not take action against corrupt officials;
  • Fear of repercussions as a consequence of reporting;
  • Lack of attention to such reports;
  • Such corrupt practices have become part of the normal routine.

It is in light of the above perceptions that the bill has been presented to parliament. Interestingly, some government officials have already started thinking about how to facilitate the process of reporting corruption. This effort has included the introduction of an online system to entice whistleblowers to report corruption. Experiences of other countries have shown that the use of technology and also anonymous reporting can pave the way for the communication of illegal and corrupt practices. It is also important to provide legal protection to whistleblowers, as some may need to be engaged for further clarification. Nonetheless, the core question in Iran is to what extent the authorities will actually undertake legal actions against corrupt elements. It is true that in recent years there has been an increase in arrests and sentences against high-level political figures, but within the context of continuous political rivalries in Iran, a number of sentences — such as the imprisonment of Mehdi Hashemi, the son of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, or the charges against Hossein Fereydoun, President Rouhani’s brother — seem to be politically motivated. The fact is, all political factions in Iran include members who at some point in the past few decades have been involved in corrupt schemes and this may present another impediment, i.e., a desire not to expose the political elite as a whole.

In the eyes of Mohammadreza Mortazavi, secretary-general of the Association of Industry, Mining and Trade, the illogical growth of the government apparatus, which is mainly financed by tax money is one of the main causes of mismanagement and corruption. In other words, the government bureaucracy has an interest in maintaining the status quo. If you add to this the fact that a growing number of lawmakers and judicial officials are involved in corrupt practices, then one can deduct why new legal and governance-related initiatives won’t actually improve the situation in the country.

At the same time, many experts opine that the core issue fueling corrupt practices is the country’s political establishment. Politicians are an important component of corrupt networks in Iran, and they offer a certain degree of patronage and protection to corrupt deals. For example, political pressure from parliamentarians on banks, ministries and state institutions can result in the awarding of a specific project to a member of a corrupt network. This is feasible since it takes only 10 signatures by lawmakers to start an impeachment process against a minister. According to one member of the Iranian business community who spoke to Al-Monitor, there is always intense competition between key ministries and corrupt networks to secure the loyalty of every new and independent member of parliament. Such “attention” is usually secured through corrupt payments and interests. Can one then really expect the same individuals to pursue a serious campaign against corruption?

Shifting the approach away from state institutions toward the greater public by offering to protect whistleblowers may be an approach to provide inroads into fighting corruption. However, considering the overall political and legal realities, the bill can only be considered window dressing. If the Islamic Republic is seriously interested in exposing corrupt elements within the political and administrative elites, then it should remove the existing restrictions on the Iranian press and promote investigative journalism. The public would trust such journalists and civil society leaders more in terms of fighting corruption and exposing corrupt politicians. Furthermore, a complete overhaul of the judicial system will be needed. Otherwise, court cases against corrupt networks will end up in front of those very judges and officials who are on the payrolls of the same networks.

As long as a comprehensive strategy is not defined and implemented, initiatives such as the whistleblower bill will not achieve their stated goals.

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Bijan Khajehpour is an economist and a managing partner at Eurasian Nexus Partners, a Vienna-based international strategic consulting firm.

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