After a week of speculation, the dual national citizen arrested in Iran has been named as Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiations team. 

Iran’s hardliner press reported on August 23 that Esfahani faced espionage charges.

On August 16, international headlines announced that Iranian authorities had arrested an individual with dual nationality following an announcement by Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi. At the time, the detained individual was not named. 

In addition to being branded a spy, Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian-Canadian, faces allegations of corruption. 

Former MP Hamid Rasaei said Esfahani had been “responsible for an important committee of the negotiating team” and that he had worked as a representative of the Central Bank during negotiations — but at the same time had received “a monthly salary of $35 million” from English and American entities. The website Nasim Online reported that Dorri Esfahani received this salary in exchange for “sensitive financial and economic information about the Islamic Republic.”

Pars News website reported on August 24 that Esfahani had been “released after a few hours of interrogations,” and was currently under surveillance while his case was “being investigated.”

Prior to the arrest and the new allegations, on June 20, hardliner website Raja News accused Esfahani of being a British spy. It demanded that Iranian authorities, including the Intelligence Ministry, answer key questions about Esfahani and his role in negotiations — as well as about his suitability for the job. 

“How can a person who holds a foreign passport and lacks any background in banking be given the sensitive position of working out the banking consequences of the JCPOA?”, Raja News journalist Javad Rezapour asked, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is known, and going on to speculate that Valiollah Seif, the governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was behind the decision. The report mysteriously said “another source” had provided proof of Seif’s trust in Esfahani.

Esfahani holds a master’s degree in accounting from a UK-based university, and is a member the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario, and the Iranian Institute of Certified Accountants, which described him as “a banking and financial member of the nuclear negotiating team and one of the most informed individuals about the process of lifting financial and banking sanctions” in September 2015.

On February 8, 2016, following the official implementation of the JCPOA, President Hasan Rouhani commended Esfahani for his work, presenting him with 50 gold coins as a token of appreciation. 

Before news of Esfahani’s recent arrest broke, there was speculation that former diplomat Cyrus Naseri, a businessman with close links to the nuclear negotiating team, might have been detained. IranWire has learned that in July, Hossein Mousavian, another former diplomat, was banned from leaving Iran. Following mediation by the Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, Mousavian was later allowed to leave the country.

Bypassing Sanctions

Esfahani’s alleged role in helping companies bypass EU and US-imposed sanctions against Iran has been the subject of extensive coverage by both Iranian and international media. Iranian conservative outlet Raja News reported that Esfahani — who it incorrectly refers to as“Abdolhossein” — sat on the board of directors of the Iranian private bank Saman, which was able to purchase “essential goods and medications” from Toronto-based pharmaceutical company Universal Health and Pharma Private Ltd thanks to Esfahani’s so-called “relations with England.”  The company’s website lists Esfahani as one of its directors. The firm was officially incorporated on 28 October 2013 in Mumbai, India. Raja also reported that Esfahani held a Canadian passport.

On June 28, Saman Bank issued a response to the Raja News report published on June 20. It stated that, effective July 22, 2015, Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani had resigned from the bank’s board of directors following recommendations from Iran’s Central Bank. The bank’s representative complained that Raja News’ description of Esfahani having “relations with England” was deliberately vague, inviting the interpretation that he was somehow  “affiliated with England.” The response further described the statement as “unfair” to the president of the bank’s board of directors, Vali Zarabieh and his advisor, Dr. Manzoori.  

In the winter of 2014, Dorri Esfahani was also appointed the bank’s representative at Saman Currency Exchange. It is not clear whether he still keeps that position or not.

But the pharmaceutical business was not the only industry Dorri Esfahani allegedly helped — and it is not only Iranians who accuse him of violating sanctions regulations. 

In February 2015, a US Congressional report named Esfahani in connection with a German company, MCS Technologies, which had come under scrutiny for suspected dealings with Iran on its nuclear program. The company produced high-pressure gas tanks and dual-use equipment that could be used in nuclear centrifuges and missile production. “A former sister company in Iran, Pars MCS, was designated by the Canadian government in 2010 as a possible contributor to ‘Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities,” a Washington Post article revealed in April 2013. Another Iranian-Canadian, Eshagh Hajizadeh, and Dorri Esfahani were partners at Pars MCS. 

In March 2013, MCS in Germany was forced to close after it unsuccessfully tried to transport some of its equipment to Iran. At that point, Iranian Pars MCS put all of its shares up for auction. The tender was managed by a company affiliated with the religious endowment of the holy city of Qom run by the former Intelligence Minister Mohammad Mehdi Reyshahri.

Contradictory Stories, “Influence,” and “Infiltration”

“Before the revolution, Dorri Esfahani worked with the US Treasury,” announced Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, Mashhad’s representative to Iran’s parliament, on August 23. “After the revolution he was hired by the Iranian Defense Ministry to oversee the financial claims of Iran against the US.” According to Ghouddousi, ministry’s officials eventually fired him, accusing him of under-performing, and Esfahani then moved to Canada.

But these claims have since been challenged, with other sources reporting that Dorri Esfahani represented Iran at the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in the Hague for 10 years, and helped lodge Iran’s £400 million claim against the United Kingdom for undelivered Chieftain tanks. The website Dana, which is associated with the semi-official government news agency Fars reported that for 15 years, Esfahani worked as “the senior coordinator of international affairs at one of the biggest ministries in the Islamic Republic.”

Ties to Rouhani’s Government?  

According to Karimi Ghoddousi, Esfahani returned to Iran after Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in 2013, and Esfahani was appointed as advisor to the governor of the Iranian Central Bank without undergoing any stringent checks or thorough questioning. During the nuclear negotiations, he worked under Hamid Badiee-Nejad, a senior member of the negotiating team. Karimi Ghoddousi describes all positions held by Dorri Esfahani as “influential” — the choice of words implies not only corrupt levels of power, but also links with the so-called “infiltration case,” an operation led by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit that has seen several journalists and dual nationals  arrested in recent months, among them Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer. The investigation has been described as an attempt to expose alleged efforts on behalf of Americans and other westerners to infiltrate Iran via scientific, economic and technological channels. 

Karimi Ghoddousi also said that Dorri Esfahani had accompanied Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on his visit to Turkey “10 days ago,” and that while he was on the plane, the warrant for his arrest was issued. “He did not get off the plane in Turkey and was returned to Iran,” Ghoddousi said. Zarif traveled to Turkey on August 12. Iran’s foreign ministry has categorically denied that Dorri Esfahani accompanied Zarif on his trip.

When Raja News mentioned “another source” for information about Dorri Esfahani, who did it mean, and was it hoping to implicate others in plots against Iran? Before the most recent coverage, some hardliner media had reported that  Esfahani had worked under Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister and head of the nuclear deal implementation committee. Pars News revealed rumors that Esfahani was working with “a brother” — a barely disguised reference to Hassan Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon, who has also faced a smear campaign by hardliners. 

But according to Dorri Esfahani’s own account, his involvement in nuclear negotiations goes back to late 2014. “A committee from the president’s office was formed under Mr. Nahavandian [Rouhani’s chief-of-staff],” he told a news website. “I was also invited to participate,” he said, adding that the Rouhani administration had decided to seek the help of banking and financial experts. “Mr. Seif [the governor of Iran’s Central Bank] asked me to help Iranian negotiators and I accepted willingly…In the final round I was at the service of Dr. Zarif and other friends and helped in financial and banking areas.” Media outlets published a photograph of Esfahani next to other members of the negotiating team following the Vienna negotiations in the summer of 2015.

The Naseri Connection

After the nuclear agreement was signed, Esfahani was active as a member of JCPOA’s “financial and banking committee” and as and worked as an economic advisor to the team. Cyrus Naseri accompanied him to one of a series of meetings about the JCPOA with Iran’s Investments Association. The meetings took place over the last six months. 

Cyrus Naseri is the brother-in-law of Majid Takht Ravanchi, a senior member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Naseri also played a role as a member of the nuclear negotiating team under President Mohammad Khatami back in the early 2000s, when Hassan Rouhani was chief negotiator. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Naseri was accused of bribery in an oil deal and was forced to leave Iran. Like Esfahani, Naseri returned to Iran after Rouhani took over the presidency and actively supported the JCPOA. 

But on June 11 2016, Nasim Online reported that authorities had issued a warrant for Naseri’s arrest, but that Naseri was out of the country. The message was clear: Cyrus Naseri should forget about returning to Iran. Naseri also faced accusations by former MP Alireza Zakani, who claimed in late 1015 that Cyrus Naseri and Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon had set up a group that met weekly to discuss how to divide up the financial spoils of the nuclear agreement.

Former diplomat Hossein Mousavian has also come under fire. A nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, he was charged with espionage under Ahmadinejad’s government and spent some time in detention. After the JCPOA, Mousavian managed the nuclear agreement’s public relations, but from outside the country. Like Naseri, he cannot return to Iran. Two other people who worked with the negotiating team — Rahman Ghahremanpour and Shahin Dadkhah — were sentenced to long prison terms for espionage, and were jailed from 2011 to 2014 and 2010 to 2015 respectively. 

Although no one quite expected the stormy nature of Iranian politics to settle after the nuclear deal was signed, recent revelations — from Revolutionary Guards’ tactics to labyrinthine stories about corruption, deceit and personal bids for power among Iran’s elite — demonstrate just how damaging the fallout might be for some. The full picture, however, is yet to emerge.

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