Saturday, May 28, 2005

Attack on Rafsanjani - The Forbes Lies Page 2

Forbes.com: Millionaire Mullahs: "On The Cover/Top Stories
Page 2 of 4 from Millionaire Mullahs
Paul Klebnikov, 07.21.03

The 1979 revolution transformed the Rafsanjani clan into commercial pashas. One brother headed the country's largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran's $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani's sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far). Today, operating through various foundations and front companies, the family is also believed to control one of Iran's biggest oil engineering companies, a plant assembling Daewoo automobiles, and Iran's best private airline (though the Rafsanjanis insist they do not own these assets).

None of this sits well with the populace, whose per capita income is $1,800 a year. The gossip on the street, going well beyond the observable facts, has the Rafsanjanis stashing billions of dollars in bank accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg; controlling huge swaths of waterfront in Iran's free economic zones on the Persian Gulf; and owning whole vacation resorts on the idyllic beaches of Dubai, Goa and Thailand.

But not much of the criticism makes its way into print. One journalist who dared to investigate Rafsanjani's secret dealings and his alleged role in extrajudicial killings of dissidents is now languishing in jail. He's lucky. Iranian politics can be deadly. Five years ago Tehran was rocked by murders of journalists and anticorruption activists; some were beheaded, others mutilated.

Some of the family's wealth is out there for all to see. Rafsanjani's youngest son, Yaser, owns a 30-acre horse farm in the super-fashionable Lavasan neighborhood of north Tehran, where land goes for over $4 million an acre. Just where did Yaser get his money? A Belgian-educated businessman, he runs a large export-import firm that includes baby food, bottled water and industrial machinery.

Until a few years ago the simplest way to get rich quick was through foreign-currency trades. Easy, if you could get greenbacks at the subsidized import rate of 1,750 rials to the dollar and resell them at the market rate of 8,000 to the dollar. You needed only the right connections for an import license. "I estimate that, over a period of ten years, Iran lost $3 billion to $5 billion annually from this kind of exchange-rate fraud," says Saeed Laylaz, an economist, now with Iran's biggest carmaker. "And the lion's share of that went to about 50 families."

One of the families benefiting from the foreign trade system was the Asgaroladis, an old Jewish clan of bazaar traders, who converted to Islam several generations ago. Asadollah Asgaroladi exports pistachios, cumin, dried fruit, shrimp and caviar, and imports sugar and home appliances; his fortune is estimated by Iranian bankers to be some $400 million. Asgaroladi had a little help from his older brother, Habibollah, who, as minister of commerce in the 1980s, was in charge of distributing lucrative foreign-trade licenses. (He was also a counterparty to commodities trader and then-fugitive Marc Rich, who helped Iran bypass U.S.-backed sanctions.)"

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