Will Sanctions Save Babak Zanjani from Execution?

February 25, 2019
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
Babak Zanjani helped the Islamic Republic to bypass sanctions but he has been living in the shadow of execution for three years
Babak Zanjani helped the Islamic Republic to bypass sanctions but he has been living in the shadow of execution for three years

Babak Zanjani, the businessman facing the death penalty for embezzlement, money laundering and corruption, could be pardoned if he agrees to pay back the money he owes the government [Persian link]. Zanjani, who is best known for successfully bypassing sanctions to build his own wealth and bolster the Iranian oil and gas industry, was sentenced to death in 2016, though Iranian authorities have not indicated when the sentence would be carried out.

The dramatic change in Iranian authorities’ stance on the case was announced by Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi on Tuesday, February 19. “Although the sentence is final we did not carry it out because it [the sentence] has an ‘if’ and this ‘if’ is more important,” he said. “Last month we had a meeting [with Zanjani] and he suggested we could help him. Today, Zanjani can save his own life by paying the government its money.” He said that if Zanjani did not return the money, there would be no chance that his life would be spared.

Since the verdict was handed down in 2016, officials have consistently stated that Zanjani would be executed without question — even if he returned the money he allegedly stole from the government [Persian link]. One of them was Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s Attorney General and Jafari’s superior, who said on July 18, 2018 and other occasions that the death sentence “is final, but he will not be executed until he returns to the public treasury all the money that he has pocketed.” He added that the majority of that money was “outside Iran.”

Babak Zanjani was arrested on December 30, 2013, shortly after the start of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. After interrogations that, according to Tehran’s prosecutor, lasted 40 sessions, Zanjani stood trial before the Revolutionary Court Judge Abolghasem Salavati, who has an international reputation for widespread and consistent violations of human rights. Rouhani’s government officials had referred to Zanjani as a symbol of “sanctions merchants.”

From the point of view of Iran’s oil ministry, the main charge against Zanjani is that during the previous round of sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program (2007-2015), he had sold more than two billion dollars’ worth of Iranian oil but had failed to turn the proceeds over to the government. Zanjani has consistently denied this charge. He maintains that when he sold the oil Iran was subject to banking and financial sanctions so he established his own bank outside Iran, opened an account for Iran’s oil ministry and deposited the money in the account. He says that, in the end, international banking sanctions blocked the transfer of these two billion dollars to Iran.

The 227-page indictment charges Zanjani with “corruption on earth [Iran’s most serious crime, punishable by death] by disrupting the national economy”, “embezzling funds from the National Iran Oil Company,” “laundering 1.9 million euros,” “forging 24 bank documents and statements,” “forging currency transfer documents” and “forging transfer orders between banks.”

On March 6, 2016, it was announced that Zanjani and his two business associates — British-Iranian Mehdi Shams and Iranian Hamid Fallah Heravi — had been sentenced to death after they were found guilty of being “corruptors on Earth.” In December 2016, Iran’s Supreme Court confirmed the sentence.


The Difference a Year Makes

But, in the span of less than a year, Iranian judiciary officials contradicted each other over the definition of the verdict. They have failed to agree on what would happen if Zanjani paid the government what he owes. Would he be pardoned or hanged?

The key development over the last year has been that the US has re-imposed all previous sanctions on Iran. To bypass these sanctions, especially when it comes to oil and gas exports, the Iranian government needs the help of people like Babak Zanjani. With the return of sanctions, even members of Rouhani’s government have announced that they would proudly bypass sanctions and senior government officials have repeatedly said that they would do so with the help of Iran’s private sector.

If Babak Zanjani is executed it could seriously discourage other people who could help the government bypass sanctions — clearly any financial gains would pale in significance when compared to the reality of risking death and execution. Besides, influential people who are trusted by the government have less dangerous ways to make money under sanctions, including corruption and embezzlement.

Babak Zanjani was rewarded for his work bypassing sanctions with (so far) a five-year stint in prison and the psychological torture of spending the last three years knowing he was going to die, but not knowing when. He has also paid a heavy price outside the borders of Iran. In December 2012, a year before he was arrested, the European Union placed him on a blacklist, describing him as "a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil-related money" to the government of Iran. And in 2013, the US Department of Treasury brought sanctions against Zanjani for being involved in operating “an international network of front companies for moving billions of dollars on behalf of the Iranian regime.” His name also appears in a corruption case brought by the Turkish government, which means that, even if he was released, the Turkish government would seek to punish him.  

What has happened to Babak Zanjani might end up being a loud alarm bell to anyone able and planning to bypass sanctions — and dissuade them from helping the government. Therefore, under the present conditions, it is likely that authorities will revoke the death sentence, knowing that his execution could certainly discourage others.

Iranian statesmen, judiciary officials and several members of the parliament have referred to  Zanjani as “an agent of corruption” who, during the years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), abused his relations with senior government officials to accumulate a legendary wealth. But, with the return of sanctions, judiciary officials have no choice but to take back all their previous claims, including the “final” verdict of the death sentence that was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Iran.

That is, unless the statements made by the Tehran prosecutor are incorrect or are meant to deceive.


More on Babak Zanjani:

Babak Zanjani Will be Executed — But Who Wins?, December 3, 2016

Babak Zanjani: Celebrity Crook and Fall Guy, April 5, 2016

Babak Zanjani Sentenced to Death, March 7, 2016

Iran’s Very Own Al Capone, December 2, 2015

IranWire Exclusive: The Case of Babak Zanjani — and its Fallout, August 6, 2015

Babak Zanjani: Tycoon or Pawn?, January 6, 2014




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