The verdict in a massive corruption case involving Iran’s Petrochemical Commercial Company was finally announced on September 5, 2021. CEO Reza Hamzehlou, vice president Abbas Samimi, board members Alireza Alaei Rahmani and Mostafa Tehrani, commercial director Mohsen Ahmadian, and Marjan Sheikhoeslami, CEO of supplier Deniz Company, were each sentenced to 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, a permanent ban on working for the government, and fines linked to the amounts they were found to have embezzled.
Together, the group were convicted of "participating in major disruption of the economic system by diverting the distribution of foreign currency resulting from the export of petrochemical products in the amount of 6.656 billion euros." According to the indictment, the swindle took place between 2010 and 2012.
One name, however, was omitted from the list of those convicted. Jalil Sobhani was previously sentenced to two years in prison for his part in the judiciary corruption case involving Akbar Tabari. He was later acquitted by the Supreme Court – an incident that went under the radar with no news coverage whatsoever – and now appears to have escaped justice again.
Who is Jalil Sobhani, and what has he done?
On September 12, 2020, during yet another court hearing in the Akbar Tabari case, the prosecutor's representative stated: "The sixth-degree defendant, Jalil Sobhani, who has been released on bail, is accused of providing the means of bribery between Akbar Tabari and Rasoul Danialzadeh, and paying bribes to Akbar Tabari, as well as participating in the formation of a multi-member bribery network led by Akbar Tabari.”
Later that same day, announcing the various verdicts in Tabari's case, then-judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said of the sixth defendant: "Jalil Sobhani, charged with aiding and abetting the crime of bribery between Akbar Tabari and Rasoul Danialzadeh by transferring the Flora apartment and paying a bribe to Akbar Tabari, is sentenced to two years in prison and the requisitioning of stolen property in the government’s favor."
Eight short months later on May 11, 2021, Parviz Sadeghi, Jalil Sobhani's lawyer, announced that the Supreme Court had acquitted him.
Sobhani didn’t need to be acquitted in court in the Petrochemical Commercial Company affair, because his name wasn’t mentioned on the indictment issued by the prosecutor's office in the first place. But many officials believe it ought to have been.
Akbar Tabari’s Neighbor and the Industry’s “Black Box”
Jalil Sobhani is the former CEO of a firm known as SPEK Company, one of the biggest petrochemical companies in Iran, which supplies parts, equipment and chemical engineering services to the wider petrochemical industry. He also happens to have been a past next-door neighbor of Akbar Tabari in the palatial Roma Residential Tower, Tehran.
Born in 1964 in Shazand, Arak, Sobhani also previously worked for the Shazand Petrochemical Company complex in Arak. Over the years, he shared directorships at various different firms with a number of the convicts in the recent corruption case.
When the Petrochemical Commercial Company scandal first hit the headlines in Iran, the presence of Marjan Sheikhoeslami among the defendants attracted a lot of attention because of her own business background and politics. The missing six billion euros attracted even more. From the very first days, Jalil Sobhani's name was widely cited as being one of the key figures in the case: so much so that the Shargh newspaper wrote on August 10, 2019 that he was the petrochemical industry’s "black box".
At the beginning of arrests in the Tabari affair, Shargh wrote: "According to reports, Sobhani has now been arrested by Branch 5 of the Government Employees' Court. He lives next door to Tabari on the 26th story of a tower block in Farmaniyeh, Tehran. Roma Residential Tower was built by the Iranian steel mogul Rasoul Danialzadeh, who borrowed 2.6 trillion tomans [US$96m] from Sarmayeh Bank and is now on the run [Danialzadeh was later arrested and jailed for his part the Akbar Tabari case].
“According to the information received, he [Sobhani] is expected to return to his job at SPEK Company on a bail of 50 billion tomans. He is one of those who worked with certain officials behind the scenes to circumvent sanctions on the petrochemical industry."
Conservative Alireza Zakani Demands Sobhani be Indicted
The publication of the indictment in the Petrochemical Commercial Company case left a big question mark hanging: where was the name of Jalil Sobhani? The omission attracted criticism at the highest levels of government. In August 2019, on the day of the third court hearing, the conservative ex-MP Alireza Zakani sent an open letter to then-Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi about corruption in the sector.
Zakani, now the Mayor of Tehran, wrote: "The case of the Petrochemical Commercial Company, which is being examined in Branch 3 of the Special Court for Economic Corruption presided over by the wise and courageous Judge Masoudi, [includes] charges of disrupting the economy in the amount of 6.6 billion euros. It demands attention be paid to other corruptions. The key factors in this case are the omission of the names of Akbar Tabari and Jalil Sobhani from the indictment. The investigator who drafted this indictment must be held accountable."
He went on: "Popular messages sent to the Supreme Leader's public office have been silenced by the influence of Mr. Akbar Tabari and Mr. Jalil Sobhani. Now, this case needs a decisive order for special investigation."
Not content with this, Zakani wrote another letter to then-Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alabi, in which he emphasized that the embezzlement of trillions of tomans and the existence of grand corruption in Iran was the result of negligence by the authorities. He mentioned more people by name, exclaiming: "Dear Mr. Alavi! Is it not questionable for His Excellency that in the case of Petrochemical Commercial Company... the name of Mr. Alinaghi Khamoushi as shareholder and chairman of the board of directors of Iran Investment Company, emerging as the buyer of Petrochemical Commercial Company, [and] Jalil Sobhani as the CEO of SPEC Company, are not mentioned?"
Jalil Sobhani’s Role in the Petrochemical Commercial Company Case
A few months later on October 24, 2019, Judge Masoudi Magham, who was assigned to the case, told an IRIB reporter during an interview: "It was in mid-August that we started investigating... Sobhani is one of the defendants in the case of Akbar Tabari, who is also involved in the petrochemical corruption case.”
Sobhani had close ties to others involved in the latter case. Reza Hamzehloo, the first defendant in the latter case who was eventually sent to prison, had previously been chairman of SPEC as a representative of Iran Investment Company while Sobhani was CEO. After him Mehdi Sharifi Nikounafs, who was also convicted in the same case, represented Iran Investment Company at SPEC. An examination of SPEC Company’s electronic records also shows that since 2010, when according to the judge the massive theft from Petrochemical Commercial Company got under way, that company had held a seat on the SPEC board of directors. In fact, a survey of about 20 companies owned or controlled by Sobhani shows that most of the convicts in the petrochemical corruption case have held directorships of his companies at different times.
Who is Jalil Sobhani’s Fellow Fugitive from Justice?
It comes as no surprise at all that, as Alireza Zakani pointed out, Alinaghi Khamoushi’s name as also missing from the indictment. Khamoushi was the first head of the Mostazafan Foundation after the Islamic Revolution and for many years served as deputy minister of commerce, and also as an MP. He’s also a founding and longtime member of the rich and influentual parliamentary group the Islamic Coalition Party, and the extent of his and his party's influence in the power structure of the Islamic Republic needs no elaboration.
The case of Jalil Sobhani, however, is different. He does not have a revolutionary record and he has not had, and will probably never have, a senior role within the Islamic Republic. The fact that he was acquitted in two separate corruption cases given his closeness to them is therefore intriguing. Is it possible that Jalil Sobhani is the special card of a person, or a faction, at the highest level in the Islamic Republic?