Authorities arrested President Hassan Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon on July 15. Although judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei announced on July 16 that he could be released on bail, his arrest will damage the Rouhani administration, and the repercussions of the arrest have already been set in motion.
Fereydoon and the allegations of corruption against him were regularly raised during the presidential election, and, in particular, during the third presidential debate on May 12, 2017. Rouhani’s main rival, Ebrahim Raeesi, attacked the government for defending Fereydoon, and said the public should be alarmed that the president’s closest confidante was a man wanted on corruption charges. But Rouhani insisted Raeesi had no evidence for his claims and accused him of slander. “We have not taken an oath of brotherhood with anyone,” he said. “If somebody has broken the law, he must be punished.” Raeesi, in turn, dismissed Rouhani’s claims, saying that both Iran’s prosecutor general and Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri had evidence that people “close” to Rouhani had been involved in criminal activity.
Over the last few years, Hossein Fereydoon has served as President Rouhani’s special advisor. But he has also been a source of trouble for the president, who rarely has even a few days when he is free of attacks from Iran’s more conservative ranks.
Fereydoon's arrest over the weekend is a measure of the post-election environment. Before the election, Rouhani’s threats and resistance prevented Fereydoon from being arrested. But now the judiciary and other areas of Iran’s political establishment dominated by conservative hardliners want to prove that they pay no special attention to the president’s position, or his political might.
The corruption charges against the president’s brother are especially significant because Rouhani himself has become such a serious critic of financial misdeeds — and in particular, he has pointed the finger at the Revolutionary Guards. But hardliners have set out to tear down Rouhani’s image as a clean politician, and demonstrate how close the president is to the very crimes he says he’s tackling.
The President’s Eyes and Ears
Hossein Fereydoon was born in 1963. He assumed his first official role in Iran just 10 days before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On February 1, 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, Ferydoon was appointed as a member of his security detail. Starting on the same day, for a period of 10 days, Fereydoon was also a member of the team that guarded political prisoners and senior members of the Shah’s secret police, Savak.
From 1989 to 1997, Fereydoon was Iran’s ambassador to Malaysia, and he worked for a time at the Iranian mission to the UN in New York, where he forged close relations with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the current Iranian foreign minister. For the last three decades, he has held high positions in the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic. He worked for the Intelligence Ministry, and some hardliner media have claimed that he was deputy minister. Because the identities of so many security and intelligence officials in Iran are not transparent, this cannot be confirmed.
In 2013, when Hassan Rouhani was elected as president, Fereydon was appointed as special advisor to the president, advising on executive affairs. Mohammad Nahavandian, Rouhani’s chief of staff, also appointed him to be head of the Presidential Inspection Office. He had considerable presence and influence in these institutions — more than the jobs warranted — and so began to attract negative attention from the media and political establishment alike. Hossein Fereydoon was everywhere — he appeared at meetings with the US Secretary of State John Kerry and with commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, he was spotted enjoying holidays on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s important free trade zone. He was seen with filmmaker Masoud Dehnamaki and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi; he met with families of war martyrs and participated in the most important cabinet meetings and was present at confidential nuclear negotiations.
Some saw him as practically a shadow president — as Bloomberg News put it, the “president’s eyes and ears.” His omnipresence both benefited and hindered Rouhani, not least because of the Revolutionary Guards’ history with the confidantes and close allies of presidents. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani made sure his son Mehdi Hashemi was always close to him when he was president, and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had close ties to Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Both Hashemi and Mashaei were used by the Guards, who turned them into an Achilles’ heel for the presidents, seeing an easy route to applying pressure on the president and his cabinet. And this is exactly what happened with Rouhani and his brother.
...Then the Fall
It started with Babak Zanjani. Zanjani, a billionaire who amassed a fortune by helping Iran, especially the Revolutionary Guards, to bypass sanctions, is now in prison and has been sentenced to death. Fereydoon was accused of accepting a donation of more than $1.5 million from Zanjani for Rouhani’s 2013 presidential campaign. Unlike Rouhani’s campaign in 2017, during Rouhani’s 2013 campaign, Fereydoon was the boss, running the campaign headquarters. Hamid Rasaei, a former member of parliament who had accused Fereydoon of accepting money from Zanjani, also accused him of involvement in shady currency, gold and silver deals. Fereydoon filed a complaint for defamation against Raeesi, but in November 2016, Raeesi reported that the court had found him not guilty.
On January 4, 2017, more than 40 parliamentarians wrote a letter to President Rouhani urging him to order an immediate investigation into Hossein Fereydoon’s financial ties with two “mega-debtors” to banks. The lawmakers referred to a document, which they believed proved that Rasoul Danial-Zadeh had bought a residential apartment worth 14 billion tomans ($3.5m) in uptown Tehran under the name of Fereydoon’s wife. They also referred to documents indicating deposits in back accounts in London and Canada that belonged to Fereydoon’s daughter. The MPs believed these documents showed financial links between Fereydoon and Shabdoust Malamiri, another mega-debtor. Danial-Zadeh is accused of defrauding banks and the parliamentarians claimed Fereydoon was the liaison between him and the managing director of Mellat Bank, who allowed Danial-Zadeh to take out huge and unsecured loans.
The “Sorkhei Gang”
The Mellat Bank director involved in the scandal was Ali Rastegar Sorkhei, who held the position until June 30, 2016. The Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit arrested him on July 19, 2016 for “activities in an organized group of banking corruption.” He was said to be a member of the “Sorkhei Gang,” a term used by the hardliner media to describe Hossein Fereydoon and his associates who, like President Rouhani, come from Sorkheh, a town in the northern Semnan Province. Natives of the region speak a dialect that other Iranians cannot readily understand, and the dialect gained fame during the nuclear negotiations when Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reported that sometimes in the course of negotiations Hossein Fereydoon talked to his brother in Sorkhei, perhaps to defy eavesdroppers.
At that time, the newspaper Vatan-e Emrouz reported that Rastegar was so close to Fereydoon’s family that some believed he was Rouhani’s cousin.
Yet another accusation thrown at Fereydoon was that his Ph.D was not legitimate. A university scholarship association released a statement on July 20, 2016, accusing Fereydoon of using access to the administration and the Ministry of Science, which is responsible for Iranian universities, to gain entry to university for his doctoral degree. The statement asked that the ministry be held accountable for allowing Fereydoon to take advantage of government access in this way.
The list of accusations against Fereydoon, financial or otherwise, is long. Conservative media have reported a “financial ring” within the government, claiming Fereydoon was its most prominent link.
Following the string of accusations, on May 19, 2016, the website Saham News reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had asked President Rouhani not to include his brother in cabinet meetings. The Saham News report was not confirmed, but little by little, Fereydoon’s prominence began to fade. He was no longer present in cabinet meetings, or in important meetings and events, whether they were official or unofficial, domestic or foreign. In spring 2016, there were persistent rumors that Fereydoon had been arrested, but judiciary officials denied the rumors.
In early summer 2016, however, Musa Ghazanfar-Abadi, head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, raised the issue of Fereydoon’s possible connection to the “banking corruption network”. He said the president should have personally asked the court to sentence his brother to life imprisonment, making it clear that plans — or at least hopes — to arrest him were underway. In the meantime, the claims against Fereydoon continued, building up a more damaging case against him.
Patience of the Hunter
Whether these accusation are partly or wholly true or not, something has been made clear over the last four years: The media close to the Revolutionary Guards, and to parliamentary figures with close ties or good relations with the Guards, have been on a mission to destroy Hossein Fereydoon, or at least gather enough dirt on him to severely damage his reputation and that of those around him. This mission is overseen and carried out by no other than the Guards’ Intelligence Unit. It waited patiently for a full decade to trap Mehdi Hashemi, so it was willing to wait until it could do the same to Hossein Fereydoon.
What is yet unknown is how Hassan Rouhani will react to his brother’s arrest. After years of pressure, Hashemi Rafsanjani yielded, accepting that his son would have to face trial and hoping he could solve the problem once and for all from behind the scenes. He was proven wrong: Mehdi Hashemi was given a 10-year jail sentence. Hardliners want the same for Hossein Fereydoon.
Whatever comes next, it’s clear that the political life of Hassan Rouhani just got more complicated, in ways one could have never foreseen or even imagined.