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The Corrupt Ties Between Mullahs and Merchants

October 8, 2020
Firouz Farzani
3 min read
The Corrupt Ties Between Mullahs and Merchants

Even before the Revolution, wealthy businessmen in Iran were working hand in glove with corrupt and now-discredited rulers. Today the clergy, far from setting an example of modesty and probity, shamelessly benefit from their wealthy connections.

Take the recent case of Alireza Panahian, an Iranian mullah. During the solemn month of Muharram, a whistleblower called Yashar Sultani revealed that a business tycoon had offered Panahian a luxury apartment in Tehran and a valuable plot of land at a fraction of their market value.

“So?”  asked Panahian, after prayers at a local mosque.  “What’s all the fuss about?”

With the brazenness common to certain elements of the Twelver Shiite clergy, Panahian justified these expensive gifts by citing the examples set by Ayatollah Khomeinei and Supreme Leader Khamenei. “Khomeinei relied on the contributions of his friends”, said Panahian.  “And His Eminence the Supreme Leader’s house has been donated by comrades.”

He is right. 

Iranian Shi’ism, like many religions, requires the faithful to donate money to religious and charitable causes. In some forms of Christianity, it’s known as tithing. In Shi’a jurisprudence, it’s known as khoms – the donation by a wealthy individual of a fifth of their annual income to the marjah, or senior clerics. Broadly speaking, the money is supposed to be spent on the greater good of the community: on the poor and orphans, on libraries, schools, tuition fees and the promotion of Islam. 

But some contemporary Iranian mullahs interpret the ‘promotion of Islam’ to mean bankrolling their own lavish lifestyles. And there’s precedent for this at the highest levels.

Years before the Islamic Revolution, when Khomeini was sent into exile, he was first given shelter in the home of a Turkish intelligence agent. Turkish security services later reported that he had with him such a quantity of gifts and money that it didn’t it in the house.

Khomeini went on to fund a revolution with some of it; Baqer Moin’s biography “Life of the Ayatollah” gives a good account of the resources Khomeini had at his disposal in this period. Then, on the eve of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, wealthy Haji Bazaaris – merchants –  bought mansions and donated them as khoms to top clerics, including Khomeini.

There’s no question that the money donated to Khomeini was a game-changer with enough power to unseat a king, but does anyone really believe none of the wealth trickled into the hands of Khomeini’s family and advisors? Is it a coincidence that still today his descendants are awash with cash?

Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric and failed presidential candidate who is still under house arrest in Iran, once acted as Khomeini’s agent in collecting khoms from pious merchants and businessmen.  In that role, he later said, he could easily have “had access” to those funds.

The relationship between commerce and the clerical caste has its roots in the 1940s, when Soviet troops occupied parts of Iran. In some areas they had successfully spread communist – by extension, atheist – ideology.

That worried the clerical establishment, which decided it had better join forces with the capitalist class. They came up with the catch-phrase “Kaaseb Habib-e- Khoda” - “a merchant is dear to God”.

Selfish, moneygrubbing clergymen who dip into charity are clearly offensive.  But it’s the quid pro quo that’s so corrosive. Business moguls today, who, by the way, often present themselves as liberal and Western-oriented, expect – and get – political influence in return for their “gifts”. This lets them break the law, subvert social justice and get even richer. 

Once upon a time in Iran, the merchants’ wealth was mobilized to create political change.  Now it works to prevent it.


I have written on this subject before. Let me refer you to my 2015 blog : Mosques on Steroids

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