Social Media vs. Tradition: Iranian Users Criticize Nepotism

Raz Zimmt analyzes the public struggle led by Iranian social media users against the deeply-rooted nepotism in Iran.
Tweet with the hashtag #GoodGene
Tweet, with the hashtag #good gene, showing a purported advertisement for “The Prince’s Shampoo.”  The picture on the bottle shows Mohammad-Reza Aref and his son.

In recent weeks, Iran’s social networks have been waging a sharp debate over nepotism in the public sector. Although the phenomenon is common, it is considered one of the worst problems in the Iranian public sector, and the recent debate on this issue is unprecedented in scope. The public and media storm surrounding the appointment of relatives of senior officials (known in Persian as “Aqazadeh,” – “sons of the lord” or “princes”) to public office attests to the decisive contribution of social networking sites (SNS) as a means for social criticism, and increased civic awareness of negative phenomena in politics and Iranian society generally, parallel to the continued strength of traditional, informal networks.

The discourse about nepotism began on SNS after Iranian businessman Hamid-Reza Aref gave an interview to Videogram in late July.”[1]Hamid, 36, is the son of Mohammad-Reza Aref, who served as First Vice President under President Mohammad Khatami from 2001 to 2005 and who now chairs the reformist faction in the Iranian parliament (Majlis). In the interviews, Hamid spoke about his success and rapid progress in business. His business began flourishing in the early 2000s, when the South African cellular operator MTN, in which he was a business partner, won a tender issued by the Iranian Ministry of Communications.  This tender allowed it to acquire 49% of the second-largest communications company in Iran. When he was asked about his meteoric success in business, Hamid attributed it to the “good genes” he inherited from his parents. His words sparked a storm on SNS, with many users accusing him of being patronizing, and mocking him with the claim that his business success is unrelated to his qualities or talents, but rather to the fact that his father was vice president when MTN won the huge tender.

Reactions to Aref developed into a wide-ranging discourse on nepotism in the Iranian public sector. Thousands of users posted comments on Twitter, Instagram and Telegram accompanied with the hashtag “good gene.”[2] They harshly criticized senior Iranian officials, who prefer to promote their children without regard for their skills or experience, while young people who are not close to senior officials find it difficult to find work, and some are even forced to emigrate from Iran because of the unemployment crisis. One user wrote that he is unemployed despite having a master’s degree in construction engineering and nearly ten years of experience in the field, while others are placed in senior positions because of their “good genes.” [3] Another sarcastically suggested changing the name of Government Week (celebrated annually in Iran in late August) to “Good Gene Week.” [4]

To illustrate the severity of the phenomenon, users listed several cases, all in recent weeks, in which children of senior officials were appointed to top management positions. The examples included: Ahmad Araghchi, nephew of Iran’s deputy foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, who was appointed to a senior position in the central bank despite his youth (under 40) and meager experience; Farshad Abbasi, the 28-year-old son of the deputy governer of Ardabil Provice and head of President Rouhani’s presidential campaign in the province, was elected mayor without any experience in municipal administration; Amir Bahmani the son of Mahmoud Bahmani, the governor of the central bank of President Ahmadinejad’s administration, who was also elected as mayor; Mehdi Vakili, the 26-year-old son of Majlis member Mohammad-Ali Vakili, who was appointed CEO of a mining company under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor and Social Services; and the appointment of Mostafa Jashnsaz, a son of a senior executive on the National Oil Company, to a management position in a company engaged in oil and gas drilling.

The discourse on nepotism soon became a political debate, when users affiliated with the conservative right took advantage of the words of Hamid-Reza Aref to criticize the reformist politicians on the grounds that they preferred the well-being of their relatives over the well-being of the country. Some of them showed pictures of Iranian fighters killed in recent months in Syria, with the label “good gene” to draw a comparison between those who, in their view, were blessed with good genes, and the children of the corrupt politicians. A number of users attacked President Rouhani personally, because his younger brother Hossein Fereydoun previously served as his senior advisor, and was recently suspected of economic crimes. Critics accused the president and his reformist supporters, claiming that instead of fighting corruption, they encourage it. Conversely, others contended that nepotism is not limited to any particular political stream. “Despite the many differences between reformists and conservatives, they have a lot in common when it comes to corruption and good genes,” tweeted one user.[5]

Traditional media and news sites joined the criticism. A commentary on the conservative website Tabnak called for combating the phenomenon, and for allowing competition over managerial positions on equal terms. The article noted that the Islamic revolution was aimed at preventing the hereditary transfer of administrative positions, and thus eliminating any difference between “princes” and the common people. [6] The website Fararu published an interview with former Majlis member Ali Tajerniya, who criticized those who believe that they have a right to enter the public arena just because one of their parents served the state in some position. According to Tajerniya , incompetent and unsuitable people are appointed to public office and as a result, many young people prefer to establish close relationships with senior officials instead of acquiring skills, education and experience. He called for the establishment of a mechanism to oversee the process of appointments in the civil service and fight nepotism. [7]

This is not the first time that SNS have served as a means of social criticism in Iran, and specifically against nepotism. In 2014, the network roiled after a group of young Iranians launched an Instagram account under the name “Rich Kids of Tehran” that afforded a glimpse into the lives of wealthy young people in the Islamic Republic. Users argued that displaying the wealth of young people for all to see was inappropriate and immoral, especially when most citizens suffer from severe economic distress. Some of them accused the youth of gaining wealth by virtue of their proximity to senior government officials, and claimed that many of their parents serve as senior government officials.[8] The prevalence of nepotism attests to the strength of the traditional, unofficial networks in Iran and in the Middle East generally. The scale of the phenomenon in Iran and its persistence over the decades (even prior to the Islamic revolution) raises serious doubts about the possibility of uprooting it. However, the widespread preoccupation with this issue in the recent past shows the potential of SNS to increase public awareness of the phenomenon, and challenge the traditional networks. This awareness is essential for the struggle against corruption in general and against nepotism in particular, and may serve as the first stage in a process that will require senior government officials to respond to public criticism, and be more stringent about complying with proper norms of behavior than they had done previously.

[1] Hamidreza Aref, Videogram. July 2017.

[2] For details on the responses, see #ژن_خوب, Twitter

[3] @Aban0098, Twitter, 3 September 2017.

[4] @Aram8160, Twitter, 4 September 2017.

[5] @behmash, Twitter, 20 August 2017.

[6] “We did not have a good gene in revolutionary thought,” Tabnak, 3 September 2017.

[7] “Political gene,” Fararu, August 31, 2017.

[8] Raz Zimmt, “Rich Kids of Tehran: Extravagant Lifestyles and Social Criticism on Iranian SNS,” Beehive, vol. 2, Issue 9 (October 2014).