New President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi has appointed Mohammad Mokhber as his first vice president. Mokhber was formerly president of the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (“Setad”): one of the biggest business conglomerates in the Middle East, which also happens to be directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Despite the enormous wealth he presided over at Setad, Mokhber has no direct experience of top-tier executive governance. His appointment also means that yet another member of Raisi’s new cabinet is subject to US sanctions.

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Ebrahim Raisi has been sanctioned by the US since 2019 for human rights abuses. He is also accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran, and for a litany of human rights violations during his 40-year career as a prosecutor and chief justice of Iran.

In early July he appointed Gholam Hossein Mohseini Ejei, who is sanctioned by the US and EU for extensive human rights violations, as Iran’s new judiciary chief. Gholamhossein Esmaili, a former judiciary spokesman sanctioned by the EU since 2011 for serious human rights violations, has since become Raisi's chief of staff. New First Vice President Mohammad Mokber, meanwhile, is blacklisted for his role at Setad.

Mokhber’s patchy record at the helm of Setad – including multiple, recent fiascos in the development and production of Iran’s domestic Covid-19 vaccine, CovIran-Barekat – has not exactly endeared him to the Iranian public. Like his boss, he also lacks any record of high-level government service. His formal political experience is limited to a stint as deputy governor of Khuzestan in western Iran, and as head of the same province’s communications department.

Mokhber has been president of Setad since 2007. As well as overseeing the operations of this massive parastatal holdings company, he previously chaired the board of Sina Bank (another financial entity sanctioned by the US), and separately set up a major subsidiary of Setad, the supposedly philanthropic, also-sanctioned Barekat Foundation, by order of Ayatollah Khamenei.

The vast and unaccountable Setad was created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to handle confiscated property from the Pahlavi family, as well as property seized from thousands of ordinary Iranians. In time it amassed an enormous real estate portfolio and established subsidiaries in almost every sector, from telecoms to oil to medicine. In 2013 it was estimated that real estate, corporate investments and other assets under Setad’s control put together were worth about $95 billion – though its accounts remain a secret even to the Iranian parliament.

In July 2010, when international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program were expanded, the EU blacklisted Mokhber for his connections to Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile industries. Two years later, the EU’s Council of Ministers removed him alongside several other individuals. But this January he was again designated by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as part of a clampdown on Setad’s fundraising activities. The US holds that Setad is effectively a network of front companies allowing Iran’s elite to preserve “a corrupt system of ownership over large parts of Iran’s economy”.

In the coming weeks, if Ebrahim Raisi is not removed from the sanctions list, the US might well not issue the eighth president of the Islamic Republic with a visa to attend the UN General Assembly in mid-September. That being the case, there is little chance Mokhber will be able to go in his stead, for the same reasons. The appointment suggests that contrary to expectations, decision-makers in Tehran are not too concerned about reducing friction with the international community – at least not for now.

The duties of the first vice-president at home have never been clearly-defined. In the absence of the president, Mokhber will be tasked with chairing the cabinet meetings. Beyond this, what his new role will entail is as nebulous as Setad’s bank balance.

 

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