Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Arab News, April 5, 2018 - He frequently preaches about how his subjects must be less greedy and materialistic and more modest, but this should not mislead people about the reality of the life of Iran’s supreme leader.
Ali Khamenei is the second longest-ruling autocrat in the Middle East, who gained most of his wealth after he became Iran’s second supreme leader. His financial empire is proven to be worth at least $95 billion. Not only does this make Khamenei the richest autocrat Iran has ever had, but most likely the richest man in the world. Leaked reports have also revealed that Khamenei, his son Mojtaba and other family members keep billions of dollars in foreign banks.
Little attention has been paid to the nuances of Khamenei’s wealth and how he has accumulated it. This is probably due to several reasons, including Khamenei’s strategy of preventing state-owned media outlets from truly covering stories on his organizations and assets. Another factor relates to how his organizations operate in the shadow of secrecy and through third parties or front companies. In addition, his misleading religious appearance diverts attention from the reality on the ground by depicting him as a “spiritual” person and “a man of God.”
One of Khamenei’s major organizations, which is rarely spoken of, is Ejraiye Farmane Emam (Setad). Setad is worth at least $95 billion. Roughly half of its holdings are invested in the corporate field and the other half in real estate, mainly through “the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians,” mostly from dissidents and foreign expatriates. Setad enjoys the advantage of monopolizing economic sectors, exploiting the nation’s wealth and bending the law in order to maximize its profits.
Khamenei’s increasing wealth leads to the empowerment of militias, hardliners and extremist forces, and further destabilization of the region.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Such secrecy about Khamenei’s wealth and his organizations’ activities helps him evade accountability. The secrecy is also aimed at preventing potential uprisings directed at Khamenei due to such obvious economic inequality and injustice. Such a financial empire gives him critical economic and political leverage over the regime’s apparatuses, politicians, and opposition. This allows him to expand his circle of loyalists and foreign proxies, and easily crush dissidents by exploiting the nation’s wealth.
Formerly, the EU sanctioned the president of Setad, Mohammad Mokhber, for involvement in “nuclear or ballistic missile activities.” The United States Department of the Treasury called Setad a “massive network of front companies” and sanctioned it. But these sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
After the lifting of sanctions thanks to the nuclear agreement, it has become much easier for Khamenei’s organization to expand its networks, business deals and revenues. Khamenei’s increasing wealth leads to the empowerment of militias, hardliners and extremist forces, and further destabilization of the region.
The EU and the US ought to reconsider restricting Khamenei’s illicit routes for accumulating wealth. One measure would be to reimpose the sanctions on Setad due to its illegal activities. In addition, the international community ought to support the Iranian people whose properties and wealth have been confiscated by Khamenei’s organization. Governments and companies should refrain from doing business with Setad or its front companies. Finally, Khamenei and his family’s assets in foreign banks ought to be frozen. These methods can lay the first steps in promoting stability and justice in the region, as well as curbing Khamenei’s power and his relentless pursuit of regional hegemony.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist.