When the comatose Ayatollah Vaez-Tabasi passed away on Friday, March 4, it was the end of an era. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the empire he ran will diminish in any way.
Three days after the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, appointed Vaez-Tabasi head of Astan Quds Razavi, or “The Holy Belongings of Imam Reza.” This is the foundation that oversees the Shrine of the 8th Shia Imam and its property in the city of Mashhad, and enjoys the religious prestige and economic benefits that come with it.
For the following 37 years and three weeks, Sheikh Abbas Vaez Tabasi ruled his turf like a sultan, managing to stay on good terms with both Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, another personal friend from Mashhad. Vaez-Tabasi was rare in this regard: not everyone appointed to prestigious positions in the early, turbulent days of the revolution survived the years that followed.
A Guardianship Protected by Religion
Many believe Astan Quds Razavi earns most of its revenue from pilgrims and their donations. The institution rarely publishes its financial records in full, so there is no data available to confirm this assumption. There is little doubt that pilgrims donate a hefty sum toward the upkeep of the shrine. However, the independence Astan Quds enjoys is rooted elsewhere. Its guardianship is protected and interpreted according to laws determined by Islamic jurists.
The capital and properties accumulated by Astan Quds are governed according to the rules applied to waqf, an inalienable religious endowment. Under these laws, property donated for religious purposes is not subject to the usual legal procedures and scrutiny applied to other institutions and businesses. As the guardian and the manager of such endowments, Astan Quds exercises ownership rights as long as it remains within the main purpose of the endowment. People usually ask for their donations to be used for the upkeep of the shrine, helping the poor and feeding the pilgrims. The minute donors transfer their property to Astan Quds they lose their ownership rights, and such an endowment cannot be transferred back to them. The privileges of Astan Quds have always been respected by all dynasties and regimes, going back to its inception 1200 years ago, following the martyrdom of Imam Reza.
As a guardian of such religious endowments, Astan Quds is not answerable to the government’s executive branch, and interacts with the government as a partner — not as an institution that must abide by any rules the government sets out. In northeastern Iran, the influence of the government is significantly overshadowed by the influence and power of Astan Quds. Municipal governments and senior officials all want to maintain good relations with the foundation, generally preferring to upset Tehran over Mashhad.
Astan Quds only answers to the supreme leader as the highest religious authority in Iran. Accordingly, it is outside the reach of civil laws and ministers, and has often bypassed cabinets and parliaments, going directly to the supreme leader instead.
Lord of Khorasan
Many people referred to Vaez-Tabasi as the sultan of Khorasan. But even he knew that he owed his influence to the foundation’s extensive network of farms, businesses, properties and land across Iran, which extend to regions once ruled by Iranian kings. It claims ownership of properties in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and in Afghanistan and India. The organization owns 90 percent of the fertile land in Iran’s three northeastern provinces. It owns 43 percent of the city of Mashhad, and has 300,000 tenants. Even the city’s government agencies are considered its tenants. According to one recent report, Astan Quds announced that government agencies and organizations under its supervision must pay it from between US$10 to 15 million in rent annually.
Twenty-five to 30 million pilgrims travel to Mashhad to pay their respects to Imam Reza annually. This is a major source of income for local businesses as well as for Astan Quds, without which Mashhad would most likely be economically ruined.
Traditionally and throughout history, Iranian kings and royal governors exempted Astan Quds and other significant religious shrines from paying taxes as a way of proving their piety. As the protectors of the faith, Iranian kings considered it their duty to respect Imam Reza’s shrine. Even during the time of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the most secular in recent history, Iran’s Parliament exempted Astan Quds from paying taxes and municipality fees. Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Astan Quds was exempted from all taxes. Ayatollah Khomeini reiterated this during the Iran-Iraq War, when the government asked the foundation to pay taxes as part of its contribution to the war effort. Vaez-Tabasi had appealed directly to Khomeini to continue the exemption. Khomeini’s rulings were considered part of sharia Law in Iran, and this remains true today. But it is ironic that the foundation, which oversees one of Shia Islam’s most important shrines, and ostensibly espouses some of its most important values, seems to despise paying taxes to an Islamic government.
As recently as 2014, attempts to collect taxes from Astan Quds ended in failure. If the Islamic government of Iran lost 60 percent of its revenues because of declining oil prices, it seemed to be saying, it was not the foundation’s problem.
An Empire with Shadowy Borders
The full extent of the Astan Quds empire is a mystery. No exact information is available regarding the size of its business enterprises, its informal subsidiaries and affiliated businesses, or their true economic impact.
At the core of the foundation’s business conglomerate, there are 104 companies, operating in a varied range of industries, including construction, pharmaceutical and medical businesses, farming, dairies, bakeries and hospitals. Astan Quds holds the majority share in 44 of these enterprises, and in 60 of them, its share is less than 50 percent. It runs its own university, and oversees the Sarakhs Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan. SSEZ includes an international airport, a train station, natural gas storage facilities and a dozen factories and companies. Because of its strategic location, Astan Quds is able to control considerable trade between Iran and Central Asia.
Like any other empire, Astan Quds has tried to expand its conglomerate in recent years. When the Iranian government took steps to privatize public firms and government-owned businesses, the institute saw an opportunity to expand its economic influence beyond Khorasan province. Claiming that the government owed it millions of dollars in back rent and land fees, it demanded the lion’s share of some of the country’s most important public firms. It was slated to become the majority owner of Mahab Quds, a major firm dealing with infrastructure provision, and the main shareholder of several other firms. President Rouhani’s administration has successfully backtracked some of its concessions, but not all of them.
When Vaez-Tabasi died, he left behind an empire in the truest meaning of the word. The religious institution he had been appointed to run has become a vital source of economic power and influence. It is little wonder that the supreme leader rushed to appoint a loyal lieutenant to run it after his death, thereby ensuring no one else could control its riches.
Astan Quds not only commands a significant portion of Iran’s economy, it is one of the key establishment institutions in the country, and allows members of the clergy and the ruling elite to follow the example of Vaez-Tabasi and bypass the executive branch of the government. It can create safe zones to maintain the status quo, and evade uncomfortable questions. In the meantime, Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad welcomes the poor, the faithful and those seeking comfort in spirituality. Most are unaware of the power behind the dazzling walls and ornate ceilings. For them, their Imam is elevated above the earthly desires of Iran’s ruling clergy.