Rohani’s futile fight against corruption

October 01, 2017
“Sanction buster.” A 2016 file picture shows Iran’s billionaire tycoon Babak Zanjani (C) in a court in Tehran. (AFP)

Hardly a day passes without a new ac­count of Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s fight against the officials who embezzled billions of dollars dur­ing the tenure of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rohani’s fight, however, may be futile.
In Ahmadinejad’s time, the polit­ical system allowed, or at the very least tolerated, theft of beit al-mal (public funds). Any serious pros­ecution of the small fry charged with misappropriation of public funds would, in a sense, eventually lead to the very top of the power structure. At the top of the pyramid is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatol­lah Ali Khamenei.
In this respect, the legal proceed­ings against Babak Zanjani, the billionaire businessman sen­tenced to death for corruption, are interesting. The 43-year-old, who once served in the Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps (IRCG), was transferred to Tehran to do “office work.” This was said to be because of his “looks.”
After military service, Zanjani said he was the chauffeur for Mohs­en Nourbakhsh, former governor of Iran’s Central Bank. Zanjani also claims he distributed US dollar bills among foreign currency traders in Tehran as part of the Central Bank’s attempts to stabilise the rial. Nour­bakhsh died in 2003 and his associ­ates have since dismissed Zanjani’s claims about working for him, both as a chauffeur and as distributor of foreign currency.
Zanjani also said he amassed a fortune exporting sheepskin to Turkey but, public records indicate, he became bankrupt and ended up in a debtors’ prison in 1996. All the more bizarre was his rise in Sori­net, one of Iran’s largest business conglomerates. In 2013, Zanjani claimed his net worth was $13.5 billion. Soon, Zanjani was helping Iranian oil evade sanctions.
Later, he would be accused of embezzling more than $2.7 billion that should have gone to Iran’s Petroleum Ministry. He was ar­rested on December 30, 2013, and sentenced to death for embezzle­ment and “spreading corruption on Earth.”
During the public trials, Zan­jani and his associates depicted themselves as “sanction busters,” national heroes who managed to sell Iranian oil despite the sever­est international sanctions. Worse, from the regime’s perspective, was that those charged with the theft of public funds pointed to individuals who might be seen as responsible at the Petroleum Ministry, the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia construction base and in the Central Bank.
A certain Mehdi Shams, one of Zanjani’s deputies, emphasised it was the Petroleum Ministry that “certified” Zanjani’s line of credit. He noted that Zanjani worked for the Khatam al-Anbia base. He added that only the IRGC was “au­thorised” to receive the oil Zanjani and his associates were supposed to sell on the black market. He said the process was monitored by the intelligence agencies.
While Zanjani and Shams now enjoy the hospitality of the Islamic Republic’s prison administration, some of their associates escaped abroad. So has Reza Mostafavi Tabatabaei, who was hired by the Petroleum Ministry to procure an offshore oil platform worth $78 million. He did so from Romania’s GSP six years ago but Iran never received the platform. It has since apparently been sighted in the Gulf of Mexico. Tabatabaei was pro­hibited from leaving Iran but has disappeared.
For all Rohani’s talk of the fight against Ahmadinejad-era corrup­tion and the theft of public funds, the regime cannot shake off the suggestion that it was involved in “spreading corruption on Earth.”