Hitch Your Wagon to a White Collar
First post, last post
There’s a stark difference between the first post of Babak Zanjani’s semi-official Facebook page, and his last post. The former, a photo published on April 10, 2013, one day before the US Department of the Treasury designated him for his efforts to evade sanctions, shows Zanjani, donning a dark blue blazer, staring straightly at the camera with a look that exudes confidence. The latest post on his page is a poll: Has Zanjani, who evaded sanctions, betrayed or served the country? The explanation accompanying the poll reads more as an impassioned plea for support rather than a brief introduction that would meet the standards of a valid poll:
“Mr. Babak Zanjani, who evaded unjust sanctions in the toughest conditions and injected 87 billion dollars of idle foreign reserves of Iran from China and Turkey and [South] Korea into Iran … has been made a symbol of economic corruption overnight after a change of administration and shift in Iran’s policies … The trial of Mr. Zanjani, who is a symbol of evading and battling against the sanctions, is in fact a trial of the regime’s policies against the United States’ policies and sanctions. Was evasion of sanctions by Babak Zanjani an act of service or treason?”
Dragged into Spotlight
In a post-Revolution tradition where the rich hardly flaunt their wealth, to avoid either a prevalent social mentality that equates wealth with corruption, or seizure of their assets by the powers-that-be, Zanjani was brought into the spotlight unwillingly and in the most dramatic way: in an act of revenge against the parliament and its decision to impeach his Minister of Welfare, then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad published a secretly recorded video of a conversation between Bagher Larijani, brother of Majles’ speaker Ali Larijani, and Saeed Mortazavi, then a senior manager of the Welfare Ministry, in which the former asks the latter to introduce him to Zanjani as his advisor. Zanjani, however, did not abandon the spotlight afterwards.
In most of 2013, Zanjani’s Facebook reads like a poorly-prepared catalogue of his diverse businesses: a modern can factory in Turkey, an international hotel in Gheshm Island, a new brand of hair spray, and a fancy restaurant in Kish Island. Babak seems to enjoy the company of celebrities, social or political, rubbing elbows with Nasser Malek-Moti'ei, the popular gold-hearted macho of pre-Revolution cinema, Ali Daei, the all-time leading national goal scorer, and Mohammad Rouyanian, a senior manager of the police forces. He is seen receiving awards from the 'moderate' Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Rouhani and Principlist Mehrdad Bazrpash. All along, the timeline is interspersed with appraisal for the Islamic Republic and affronts against the United States.
On December 31, 2013, Zanjani was detained by the judiciary.
Babak Zanjani turned into a pariah after his detention. Reformist media called him the natural product of an eight-year malfeasance by Ahmadinejad and Co, a result of misguided diplomacy that brought around the sanctions and consequently sloppy fiscal transactions. The Principlists' job to retort was tougher since they had to dig harder and do some political archeology to attach Zanjani to Reformists. "The rise of Babak Zanjanis and the desire for becoming capitalists started after the war," said Ayatollah Ka'bi, a conservative member of the Council of Experts, referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s when then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his team promoted economic liberalism and consumerism.
The main enemy of Babak Zanjani hailed from the moderate camp and Rouhani's government nonetheless: the veteran petroleum minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh who launched a media campaign against Zanjani to get back the 2.5 billion dollar national oil revenue, money in the hands of Zanjani when he was assigned with selling Iranian oil in the international markets during the time of sanctions. Prior to his detention, the tycoon tried to clear himself from accusations drawing on a discourse used mainly by loyalists to the establishment: "I am an economic Basiji" he said, comparing his bypassing of sanctions to the sacrifice of paramilitary volunteers during the 1980s war against Iraq. A cartoon published in Zanjani's Facebook page showed him handcuffed and taped over the mouth being handed to Uncle Sam by Zanganeh, Vice President Es'haq Jahangiri, and the president's economic advisor Mohammad-Ali Najafi. The reason: "bypassing US sanctions against the Iranian nation" as the flyer on the wall reads.
Zanjani's trial which started on October 3, 2015 has drawn extensive media attention, not only for the magnitude of the money involved, but also for some outrageous claims made by the tycoon. "At the moment, I have 22 billion Euros of cash" he said during the seventh session of his trial, adding that he was connected to an Emirati sheikh named Hashr, a partner in trade who had lent him 15 billion Euros. The 41-year old billionaire did not spare Zanganeh of his criticism: "I do not want Zanganeh to ride my car. Burn my assets, but don't give them to the Oil Ministry" he said as the court was enumerating his cashable properties.
What will be the fate of Zanjani, a man who is facing grave charges of "corruption on earth", forgery, money laundry, and defrauding the National Iranian Oil Company? He has seen the execution of his predecessor, Mahafarid Khosravi, another billionaire with a murky record whose "3000 billion Tomans" case of corruption shocked the Iranian society in 2010. In this context, Zanjani's active presence in the media may be a strategy to avoid a similar fate.
Whatever the end of this saga, for many observers it is clear that the nexus of power and economy in Iran is a fertile ground for the rise of more and more Zanjanis and further media scandals. "The truth is that a person such as Babak Zanjani with that [questionable earlier] record must have had certain connections to reach this position" says Amir-Abbas Soltani, a member of the parliament closely following the case. "To only try Babak Zanjani is of no use and in four years, we will see other Babak Zanjanis being raised by these people"; that is, white collars who paved the way for him to take advantage of the situation. The same white collars took advantage of Zanjani, says Sadegh Zibakalam, a Reformist political observer, and "crumpled him like a used tissue and threw him in the bin when they were finished."
* This post was originally published on January 2, 2016.