Iran’s billionaire ‘economic basij’ arrested

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Babak Zanjani, Iran’s sanctions-busting billionaire who thinks of himself as an “economic basij” for what he calls his services to the country, was arrested yesterday and reportedly sent to Evin prison over approximately $3 billion owed to the government for the sale of oil and petrochemicals.

Zanjani, who made his fortune under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in various enterprises, including an alleged illegal financial relationship with the country’s Social Security Organization, is on the US Treasury’s list for assisting Iran in evading sanctions on the sale of their oil. He owns the conglomerate Sorinet, which owns various companies in the Middle East and Asia, including an airline, and claims his personal fortune is $13 billion.

In September, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said that Zanjani still owed the Oil Ministry $2 billion, although this sum was later paid, according to Zanganeh, who said that his case with the ministry was subsequently closed.

On accusations of Zanjani’s relationship with the Social Security Organization, Mostafa Afzalifar, spokesman for parliament’s Article 90 committee, said that 17 companies worth approximately 4.2 billion euros were to be handed over to Zanjani. Though the head of the Social Security Organization denies the relationship, it will have to submit to the committee a report explaining the accusations of exchanging money with Zanjani and handing over companies to him.

Afzalifar also said that on Saturday, the committee will hold meetings with the Central Bank of Iran and the attorney general on Zanjani’s case. They will submit all of their findings to the judiciary.

Afzalifar also downplayed the significance of Zanjani’s role in helping the country evade sanctions, saying, “I’m not saying he didn’t have a role, but if he did evade sanctions, the effect was not noticeable.”

He continued, “It is not a reason for an individual to have the treasury at his discretion for a prolonged period of time and, based on the documentation, create investments and rent-seeking for themselves. If Babak Zanjani worked in evading sanctions, certainly it will have an influence on his case, but his service is not a reason to use public property or settle his own accounts with the government’s.”

Last week, 12 parliament members wrote an open letter stating that there was enough evidence to pursue Zanjani’s case. The letter said that financial corruption had become “systematic.”

While in the last eight years economic sanctions took a toll on the middle class and the poor, certain individuals prospered, as evidenced by the large homes and Maseratis, Porsches and Lamborghinis seen in the streets of North Tehran. Zanjani’s high profile antics, however, made him stand out. He gave an interview to BBC Persian in which he nonchalantly talked about his wealth, referred to himself as an “economic basij” and was something of a celebrity on Facebook, where he shared pictures of Sorinet’s construction projects, recording studio, upscale hotels and Airbus airplanes from the company’s Qeshm airlines.

Earlier this morning, an impassioned defense of Zanjani’s work in evading sanctions and helping Iran was posted by Zanjani’s Facebook page. The post said that people “would rather die of thirst than have a champion,” and if not for his work in selling Iran’s oil, perhaps “the dollar would be [worth] 10,000 toman.” The post, signed by an individual who only offered the name “Haddad,” added that Zanjani never denied owing money but that regardless, owing money is not a criminal matter.