Babak Zanjani and the complicity of Iran

An unjust sanctions regime was imposed on Iran, and yet its corrupt ruling elite were benefiting from its consequences.

Iranian multibillionaire sentenced to death for fraud
The full exposure of such corruptions scandalises not just the crook who engaged in such financial atrocities, but those who enabled him, writes Dabashi [EPA]

He called himself the “economic basij”, according to The New York Times, a reference to Iran’s hard-line paramilitary organisation and defender of the Islamic Revolution. He drove a black Mercedes 500SL and wore a $30,000 watch, as befits a man who put his self-worth at $13.5bn, it added.

The name of Babak Zanjani has always been associated with the roundabout ways the Iranian economy tried to bypass the United States and United Nations-imposed sanctions and sell its oil abroad. In the process he amassed a sizable fortune for himself.

An unjust and cowardly regime of sanctions was imposed on a nation, and yet its corrupt ruling elite was benefiting from its consequences.

The news that Zanjani was sentenced to death by the self-same regime that had enabled him to move up in the world – from sheepskin merchant to jetsetting businessman – was neither surprising nor reassuring.

A global network

This is not the first time a high-profile businessman is charged with corruption and sentenced to death. Back in May 2014,  “a billionaire businessman who had been convicted of playing a central role in a $2.6bn corruption case … Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, was hanged … He was convicted of forging letters of credit with the help of high-level bank managers to obtain loans from one of the country’s largest banks, Saderat.”

The ruling regime in Iran is not accountable to its citizens, and at the slightest suggestion of resistance to tyranny it resorts to brutish violence to silence it.


No single businessman, no matter how shrewd, is of course responsible for corruptions of such magnitude. “Mr Zanjani” we know, “has acknowledged that since 2010 he has used a web of more than 60 companies based in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Malaysia to sell millions of barrels of Iranian oil on behalf of the government, generating $17.5bn of desperately needed revenue.”

According to one economist, Nader Habibi, who has followed this scandal closely, Turkey, in particular, has been a key partner in an “elaborate money laundering scheme for the government of Iran”.

The economic dimensions of this scandal extend well into the political realm in both Iran and Turkey, where Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, is deeply implicated in this corruption, and even connected to his chronic rivalries with the exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

In Iran proper, all indications are that “Zanjani is a casualty of the still largely under-reported struggle between [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s coalition of Intelligence Ministry officials, clerics, the Islamic revolution’s old guard and repented reformists on the one hand and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) on the other”.

Power and corruption collude

Corruption at such high levels is of course not limited to Iran or Turkey. The scandal around FIFA has had global implications far beyond any one particular country.

In the US, the current presidential elections is flooded with charges of corruption by leading candidates, such as Hillary Clinton receiving massive amounts of money from Wall Street magnets and foreign country special interests to finance her bid for the White House.

In Israel, former President Moshe Katsav has been convicted of rape and obstruction of justice, while former Prime Minster Ehud Olmert has been convicted of bribery.

Babak Zanjani (centre) holding documents as he arrives at court in Tehran in November 2015. [EPA]
Babak Zanjani (centre) holding documents as he arrives at court in Tehran in November 2015. [EPA]

The case of Zanjani thus echoes regionally and globally to raise a crucial question. We know proverbially from Lord Acton’s famous phrase that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

But don’t these cases come together to point to perhaps a superior insight? That it is not just power that corrupts, but that corruption empowers. Power does not pave the way to corruption. Corruption paves the way to power.

In response to the sentencing of Zanjani, Rouhani on his official Facebook page has said “sentencing him to hanging does not solve anything. People want to know what happened to these $2.7bn dollars. Who has supported him? Who has created an environment in which he could have amassed this wealth? People want to know how and with whose permission this man could have sold oil? Why did they give him this permission?”

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Rouhani knows only too well that there is a corrupt mafia inside the regime itself that is trying to hide behind this sentencing. Zanjani was not corrupt because he was powerful. He became powerful because he is corrupt, because corrupt people in position of power used him to amass wealth and stay in power at one and the same time.

The cutting edge of these sanctions from which Zanjani and the top-level Iranian official mafia he served benefited targeted poor people desperate for medicine and other basic necessities – while these corrupt businessmen were using their political power to their financial advantages.

No accountability

The ruling regime in Iran is not accountable to its citizens, and at the slightest suggestion of resistance to tyranny it resorts to brutish violence to silence it. We will never know what official organs of the Islamic Republic enabled Zanjani in the first place, and are now trying to hide behind his death sentence.

The full exposure of such corruptions scandalises not only the crook who engaged in such financial atrocities, but those who enabled him and are now using him as “the fall guy”.


So that they remain hidden behind the thicket of the deep mafia state that rules Iran, and beyond Iran in Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, and any other country in which Zanjani had business interests, and were part of this global scheme to prolong the sanctions, benefit from it, feign a radical posture against “the Great Satan”, and be as integral to its corrupt operation as any neocon joint they love to denounce and demonise.

The corrupt ruling mafia in Iran (whom even the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dubbed “our smuggler brothers”) is not part of any line of “resistance” to the US imperial machinations in the region. It is among its chief partners in crime.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.