Anger grows in Iran over corruption, nepotism and the crazy-rich elite
Iranian leaders frequently attribute the widespread poverty in their country to external factors, such as the sanctions imposed by the US on Iran’s nuclear program and banking system. But the widespread financial corruption, cronyism and nepotism must be viewed as critical contributors to the high poverty levels.
In fact, instead of blaming the US, many Iranians have started criticizing the regime and are increasingly expressing anger over the stark divide between rich and poor, and the economic inequality between the elite and ordinary people.
It is worth remembering that one of the major reasons behind the Iranian revolution in 1979 was frustration with widespread financial corruption at the top.
“We voted for the Islamic Republic thinking that it would be different from the Shah,” said Golnaz, a senior engineer from Kerman province.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei showed sympathy with the people when he complained more than two decades ago: “(The Shah’s) government was, firstly, corrupt: Financially corrupt, ethically corrupt, and corrupt in administrative affairs. In the financial corruption, it suffices to remind that the Shah himself and his family were involved in most of the major economic transactions of the country. He and his brothers and sisters were among those who accumulated the most personal wealth. In his 16- or 17-year kingdom, Reza Khan accumulated important wealth.”
Many Iranians wonder how the current political establishment is any different from that of the Shah. Financial corruption at the top and across the political spectrum has crippled the country.
For example, Hossein Fereydoun — the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and a member of the Moderation and Development Party who was formerly in charge of the Supreme Leader’s security — was recently caught participating in a large-scale bribery and financial scheme.
In December 2017, Hamid Baghaei, a former vice president and close confident of the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was indicted on corruption charges, including embezzlement.
In 2018, Ahmad Araqchi — a former deputy governor of the Central Bank and a relative of Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi — and Meysam Khodaei — who was an adviser to Mohammad Nahavandian, Rouhani’s deputy for economic affairs — were exposed for their involvement in a corruption case worth nearly $200 million.
The supreme leader’s own financial empire is known to be worth at least $95 billion.
These are only few examples of things that have sparked anger in Iranian society. Many people are angered by the extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by the children of the elite — or “noble-born” children, known as “aghazadeh” — and their families while ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet so that they can feed their children and send them to school.
The flashy lifestyles of the “aghazadeh” are exposed on the internet. Instagram channels such as Rich Kids of Tehran, for example, features images of the elite flaunting their wealth and lavish lifestyles at home and abroad.
While Iranian leaders criticize the West, it is well known that they send their children to live, work and obtain university degrees in Western countries. A photograph of the granddaughter of the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, showed her in Europe carrying a handbag worth thousands of dollars. There was also a recent public outcry and accusations of cronyism and favoritism linked to Rouhani’s 33-year-old son-in-law, Kambiz Mehdizadeh.
While Iranian leaders criticize the West, it is well known that they send their children to live, work and obtain university degrees in Western countries.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The Iranian elite reportedly keep large amounts of their assets in foreign bank accounts. According to Reuters, leaked reports reveal that Khamenei, his son Mojtaba and other family members keep billions of dollars in overseas banks. Meanwhile Khamenei criticizes the children of the Shah for stealing billions of dollars from the country and accumulating the cash in foreign banks: “Of course, (the Shah’s) children had a wider taste; they loved and gathered every kind of capital. The best proof to that is that when they left the country, billions of dollars of their wealth were accumulated in foreign banks. A political system that was so financially corrupt at its head; look how military-oriented it was and what it did to the people.”
Shadi, an Iranian nurse and mother, said: “Akhonda, the mullahs and the elite now are doing the same thing the Shah did. The Shah’s children and family members fled the country with billions of dollars of the nation’s money and they are living an extremely wealthy and comfortable lifestyle in the US at the expense of the poor in Iran. The children and family members of the current elite are doing the same.”
More than 40 percent of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line, so many are extremely frustrated by the stark rich-poor divide, and the corruption, cronyism and nepotism that is widespread at the top.
While the elite and “aghazadeh” enjoy a life of luxury, and some of them flaunt their wealth on the internet, the overwhelming majority of the people continue to find it extremely difficult to make ends meet.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh