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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 18:26 GMT
Iranian postcards: Wrapped in red tape
In the run-up to parliamentary elections in Iran, Rozita Lotfi, a writer from the BBC Persian Service, gives a snapshot of an aspect of contemporary life in the Islamic Republic.

Changing money is supposed to have got easier
Changing money can involve a mountain of paperwork and a long wait
Changing money in Iran is supposed to have got easier. You can now pop into any bank and they'll do it for you. Well that's the theory. The reality, I discovered on a recent trip to Tehran, is somewhat different.

It took a mountain of paperwork and a two-hour wait for me to change just two hundred dollars. It was one more example of the bureaucracy Iranians complain is slowly bringing their country to a halt.

Everything you need to do in Iran, seems to involve filling in endless forms. If you want to buy a house, set up a business or even register the birth of a child, you'll find yourself spending hours standing in corridors and being shunted from office to office by surly bureaucrats.

Greasing the wheels

One reason for all the paperwork is that the state sector still controls almost all public services in Iran. In the Shah's time the civil service was considered a prestige job and was relatively well funded.

The state sector is caught up in bureaucracy
One reason for all the paperwork is that the state sector still controls almost all public services
After the revolution, a whole swathe of old-fashioned bureaucrats was replaced by a new generation of mullahs. What they lacked in experience and training, Iranians say ruefully, they made up for in pieces of paper.

Over the years, the state sector has suffered from chronic under funding. Civil servants are generally poorly paid, and they're always on the look out for any opportunity to make some money on the side.

They no longer see bribery as something immoral - it's more a necessary extra source of income.

Almost every procedure these days can be speeded up for a small extra payment. If you're involved in a legal dispute, it's taken for granted that you'll slip some money to the judge to sort things out quickly. If you're stopped for speeding by a traffic policeman you simply hand over some cash and he lets you go on your way.

Corruption at the top

This widespread, everyday corruption is not just an annoyance. It's also discouraging people from setting up new businesses and it's putting off potential foreign investors.

Many Iranian entrepreneurs prefer to run their companies from Dubai these days, to avoid getting tied up in red tape.

And this low-level corruption goes hand-in-hand with an even bigger problem: the corruption that exists at the very top. Occasionally cases come to court which throw light on a system of patronage and nepotism which means everyone who is anyone in Iranian society has some kind of connection to the ruling mullahs.

Last year, the sons of three leading clerics were given long prison sentences for running a consultancy and using their father's names to negotiate lucrative deals. Ordinary Iranians would like to see many more such cases coming to court.

When President Khatami came to power in 1997, he pledged to tackle the problem. Over the past six years some efforts have been made to fight corruption, reduce bureaucracy, and transfer responsibilities to the private sector. But there's still a very long way to go, and the government's perceived failure to do more about the problem is just one more reason for the growing calls from ordinary Iranians for reform and change.

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