Reuters published part 1 of a major investigative piece on Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s financial dealings today, and the scale at which he’s effectively robbing his people blind is rather staggering:
Setad has become one of the most powerful organizations in Iran, though many Iranians, and the wider world, know very little about it. In the past six years, it has morphed into a business juggernaut that now holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and even ostrich farming.
The organization’s total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts. But Setad’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets total about $95 billion, Reuters has calculated. That estimate is based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran Stock Exchange and company websites, and information from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Setad, whose full name translates into English as something like “Headquarters for the Enforcement of the Edict of His Excellency the Imam,” was founded in the 80s under Ayatollah Khomeini with the intention (at least on paper) of using the properties that had been abandoned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to aid the poor:
When Khomeini, the first supreme leader, set in motion the creation of Setad, it was only supposed to manage and sell properties “without owners” and direct much of the proceeds to charity. Setad was to use the funds to assist war veterans, war widows “and the downtrodden.” According to one of its co-founders, Setad was to operate for no more than two years.
Intentional or not, Setad soon got into the business of just seizing property from whoever the hell it wanted, naturally from among the dispossessed and powerless segments of post-Revolution Iranian society, particularly religious minorities and most particularly the Bahaʾi, who never really had it very good under the Shah either but who have really suffered under clerical rule. Its charitable work, and there has been some, has been, shall we say, put on the back burner by Khamenei, who has the organization seizing properties simply to stuff its own coffers at this point. Reuters found that Setad has numerous business investments and assets that probably top what the Shah had been able to amass over his decades of systematic theft and looting, so all told this is a very efficient skimming operation. They’re even, apparently, running a protection racket now:
An Iranian Shi’ite Muslim businessman now living abroad, who asked to remain anonymous because he still travels to Iran, said he attempted two years ago to sell a piece of land near Tehran that his family had long owned. Local authorities informed him that he needed a “no objection letter” from Setad.
The businessman said he visited Setad’s local office and was required to pay a bribe of several hundred dollars to the clerks to locate his file and expedite the process. He said he then was told he had to pay a fee, because Setad had “protected” his family’s land from squatters for decades. He would be assessed between 2 percent and 2.5 percent of the property’s value for every year.
Protection rackets are often the first step from anarchy to government, but you shouldn’t expect to find them in countries that theoretically already have a functioning government. That’s why we keep putting mafia types in prison, for example.
For a leader about whom the Washington Post once wrote:
An unusual sort of dictator. He has a down-to-earth image and calm demeanor that sit uneasily with the praise he often heaps upon Iran’s militants. His austere lifestyle stands in jarring contrast to the corruption and ostentatious wealth of many other Iranian leaders.
this story is kind of a big deal, since now it really seems like he’s actually quite usual, as dictators go. The Reuters piece does note that there’s no evidence Khamenei is using Setad’s billions to enrich himself personally, but rather as a tool (via the confiscations and strategic investments) to strengthen his grip on power. I’m not convinced that the distinction would matter to most Iranians if they knew what was happening.