A crackdown on corruption in the Iranian bureaucracy, spurred by popular pressure, has brought its first results. Five officials of the Ministry of Heavy Industry have been sentenced to be flogged, fined, and sent into internal exile, the Tehran newspaper Kayhan reported Wednesday. And 12 businessmen accused of bribing them were sentenced to prison terms, fines, and lashes.
The sentences, handed down in special courts set up by the Supreme Judiciary Council, seemed relatively light in a country that often punishes crimes with the death penalty. In fact, before the sentences were dealt, Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi asked parliament to pass a law that would provide for harsher penalties for corrupt civil servants.
Many Iranians say the corruption at the Ministry of Heavy Industry is just the tip of the iceberg. They contend corruption is blossoming at every level of society and cite three main causes:
* The decreasing standard of living of civil servants since the 1979 revolution.
* The ambiguities of new economic laws passed by the parliament.
* The inflation and shortages caused by the four-year war with Iraq.
''We haven't raised civil servants' salaries since the revolution, and we realize that their situation is very difficult,'' conceded Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, a few weeks ago.
Indeed, low-level civil servants - school-teachers and postmen, for example - make only 20,000 rials a month (about $166). A director in a ministry or a professor earns 100,000 rials.
''With such salaries,'' explains a woman contacted in Tehran, ''it is impossible to make both ends meet. The monthly rent for a single-room apartment in downtown Tehran is 10,000 rials and, when signing the lease, landlords asks for deposits of about five times that sum. For a double bedroom apartment in a well-off neighborhood you have to pay 100,000 to 130,000 rials. In those conditions, many bureaucrats choose to share their apartments with their parents or brothers and sisters. Some take a second job or become corrupt.''
Corruption in Iran peaked during the last years of the Shah's regime.
''The imperial regime crumbled, because it was corrupted to the bones,'' say Western diplomats in Tehran.
Western businessmen who deal with state-owned companies confirm that the Middle Eastern tradition of baksheesh - which encompasses everything from tipping to bribery - is alive and well. They say they even know of some newly appointed managers of public Iranian companies who deposit in Swiss bank accounts the commissions they take on contracts signed with foreign companies.
One of the main centers of corruption is said to be the customs administration, where officers reportedly accept bribes to clear luxury goods.
Bribery is also found in the Ministry of Trade. Private Iranian companies must have special licenses from the ministry to sign contracts with foreign suppliers.
''The temptation is great for underpaid civil servants at the Ministry of Trade to grant licenses only in exchange (for) promises that they will get their percentage on the benefits to be made by the private importers,'' says an Iranian tradesman.
Involvement of the state bureaucracy in distribution of goods has given way to corruption as well. The officials from the Ministry of Heavy Industry who were just tried had provided contractors in the northern city of Mashad with large quantities of steel beside the legal quotas allocated by the Cabinet to private companies in that region. The extra steel was sold on the black market and the proceeds split between the contractors and the officials.
Many Iranian tradesmen say a return to a freer economy could help restore sane commercial practices.