Iranian oligarchs bask in wealth while others suffer

The oligarchs use family connections to promote their careers and to further enrich themselves from public funds.
Sunday 02/09/2018
A woman walks past a beggar in Tehran. (AFP)
On the breadline. A woman walks past a beggar in Tehran. (AFP)

While many Iranians suffer because the rial is in free fall and cut expenses drastically but still can’t make ends meet, they see the oligarchs of the Islamic Republic live life large.

The oligarchs flaunt their fabulous wealth on the internet, use family connections to promote their careers and to further enrich themselves from public funds. For the Iranian public, this is a sad reminder of the “thousand families” (Hezar Famil), or the oligarchy, which allegedly ruled Iran prior to the revolution. It is also a reminder of the revolutionary regime’s promise to replace the oligarchic system with equality and meritocracy.

It appears the oligarchy remains intact, with the “thousand families” of the Pahlavi era giving way to another “thousand families” in control of the country’s wealth. Worse, the newly rich Iranians have set aside any pretence of modesty and display their wealth with unprecedented vulgarity.

One example is Yasaman Eshraghi, great granddaughter of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and self-proclaimed leader of the “dispossessed” (Mostazafin) of the world.

During a recent visit to London, Eshraghi showed a $3,800 Dolce & Gabbana handbag on Instagram. In a selfie, she showed off an expensive BMW car. Her mother, Naimeh, came to her daughter’s defence but ended up revealing more about the luxurious lifestyle of the Khomeinis.

Yes, they live in the upper-class neighbourhood of Niavaran, close to the shah’s palace, Naimeh admitted but “that is for security reasons.” The BMW possibly belonged to a friend and “we never capitalised on our connections to enrich ourselves. My father was wealthy to begin with.”

By the way, “we have nothing against wealth”! In the same interview, she contradicted herself by claiming the Khomeinis live a modest middle-class life.

Another claimant to a modest middle-class life is Morteza Moradian, Iran’s ambassador to Denmark. Moradian threw a lavish party in Tehran’s upper-class Shahrak-e Gharb for his son’s marriage to Anashid, a photo model. Photos of the wedding party found their way to the internet — and infuriated many Iranians.

How much does a public servant make to be able to throw such a party?

Moradian’s daughter-in-law Anashid gave an interview defending her family’s “ascetic” lifestyle. In another interview, she defended her foreign travels and the wearing of foreign luxury brands as follows: “It’s because we have no brands in Iran!”

Other “sons of notables” display their contempt for the average Iranian much more openly. Mohammad-Reza Sobhani, also known as Sasha, who is the son of a former Iranian ambassador to Venezuela, systematically uploads photos of himself enjoying champagne at the pool, occasionally with naked women in the background. Other photos show him driving a Bugatti and lighting his cigarette with dollar bills. In a recent video on Instagram, he urged people not to be so nosy about his lavish lifestyle: “Instead of envying me, go make some money. If you can’t make money and you can’t make a living, die. Full Stop!”

The August 5 arrest of Ahmad Araghchi, nephew of Abbas Araghchi, nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister, provides yet another example of the behaviour of regime oligarchs. The Araghchis are a traditional, religious and wealthy family from Isfahan and have significantly increased their wealth in the past four decades.

They shifted sides during the revolution to preserve the family fortune. Under the Islamic Republic, the family, which was originally in the carpet business, infiltrated powerful positions.

Recently, the Araghchis took a step too far by securing a job for Ahmad Araghchi, 39, as foreign exchange director at the Central Bank. The appointment provoked a public outcry. Iranian bloggers and the newspapers too mockingly praised the “good genes” of the young Araghchi. His genes, they said, had secured him such a senior position with no relevant professional experience.

Then, Ahmad Araghchi was arrested along with 12 other Central Bank officials and more than 100 banking sector officials were barred from leaving Iran. The grounds for the arrests are not clear. However, there is speculation about abuse of access to insider information on Central Bank policies. This to help relatives buy gold and foreign currency at the subsidised official rate and thereby secure their wealth.

Needless to say, Iranians with no access to privileged information, foreign currency or gold could not secure their meagre savings.

Iranians are watching the luxurious lifestyle of the sons and daughters of the revolutionary regime in bitter silence but that may be the calm before the storm.