In a ceremony on April 1 to honor the departing Friday Imam of Kashan and to welcome his successor, Mohammad Mehdi Golpayegani, Chief of Staff of the Office of the Supreme Leader, claimed: “The Exalted Leader mostly keeps company with the poor, the needy, the families of the martyrs and veterans... Before coronavirus, the Exalted Leader visited the [war] martyrs’ families once a week. Besides bestowing his kindness on their children, the dear leader of the revolution takes care of their problems as well.”
“The living standards of the Exalted Supreme Leader are below average,” he then declared.
April Fools Day is sometimes marked in Iran too, but Golpayegani appeared to be serious. So, is the material life of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic more meager than average? Does he mostly keep company with the poor and needy? In this report, based on the known information, IranWire tries to answer these questions.
Tales of Khamenei’s Personal Life
Mohammad Mehdi Golpayegani’s claim about the way Khamenei lives day to day are not new. Similar exultations have been repeated by officials in the past. After the US sanctioned the Supreme Leader personally, then-President Hassan Rouhani described the measure as “ridiculous” and “reprehensible”, and added: “The only property owned by the Leader is a hosseiniyeh [congregation hall] and a simple house… The Iranian leader is not like other world leaders with millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts to be confiscated or blocked.”
A report published by the pro-regime website Seekers of Justice on June 26, 2020, entitled The biographies, properties and assets of the children of Mr. Khamenei, the Exalted Leader of the Revolution, featured a collection of stories by close associates of Khamenei about his personal life and those of his sons. They were unanimous in praising the simple, humble life Khamenei ostensibly leads. No facts or evidence were provided.
Does Khamenei Mostly Keep Company with the Poor, the Needy, and the Families of “Martyrs” and Veterans?
Our only authoritative source of information with which to verify this is Khamenei’s own official website, which records his meetings throughout the year. The pandemic reduced his in-person meetings to a bare minimum in the last two years. Before that, though, the answer to the above question was decidedly no.
In the Iranian calendar year 1398 (March 21, 2019 to March 19, 2020), none of Khamenei’s 70 officially-recorded meetings were seemingly with “the poor and the needy”. He attended one get-together with laborers, at least some of whom were probably working-class, but this was not the reason for the meeting and they may not have been poor either. On the contrary, many highly-skilled workers in Iran are well-renumerated.
In 1398, Khamenei met twice with family members of people termed “martyrs” in the lexicon of the Islamic Republic: one with the family of General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force who had been assassinated by an American drone on January 3, 2020, and the other with the family of Reza Kishbafan, a victim of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. His website does not mention any other meeting with the families of “martyrs”.
In the official list of Khamenei’s meetings in 1398, not one meeting with welfare recipients, pensioners or the beneficiaries of charity bonyads like the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation or the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs was recorded, wholly absenting the “needy”.
That same year, in a speech to members of paramilitary Basij, Khamenei had offered up an unexpected definition for the Persian word mostazafan: a term that can be variably translated as “the downtrodden”, “the underdog” or most commonly “the oppressed”, those that Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters claimed the revolution was to benefit and generally understood to mean the poor.
“They have misinterpreted the word mostazafan,” Khamenei told the Basij. “They believe it means the ‘downtrodden’ or, as has become customary in recent years, the ‘vulnerable’. No, these are not those that Quran calls the mostazafan. Mostazafan means the potential leaders and imams of humanity, those who shall inherit the Earth and what exists on it. This is what the basij [literally, “mobilization”] of the mostazafan means. A mostazaf is somebody who the potential to inherit the earth. He is the potential leader and imam of humanity.”
Other Presses on Khamenei’s Time
There is no data available about the unofficial meetings of the Supreme Leader but given the presence of one Iran-Iraq war veteran on the main list, it can be presumed any others ought to have figured on there too. Furthermore, Khamenei’s diary is packed; it is hard to imagine him having attended a full 70 more meetings in a single year with the hoi polloi.
In addition, in the Islamic Republic, all senior officials, elected or unelected, are accountable to the Supreme Leader. But importantly, the Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of armed forces as well. He must dedicate an additional, unrecorded part of his time to meetings with senior commanders and military advisors.
A major part of the Iranian economy is also in the hands of entities directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, from the Mostazafan Foundation, the second-largest commercial enterprise in Iran, the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (“Setad”) and the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs to the guardianship of holy sites such as Astan Quds Razavi. Consequently, another part of the Supreme Leader’s time has to be being spent on the management of these organizations.
Besides political and military affairs, Khamenei is also the overseer of religious affairs in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Seminaries and cultural-religious organizations such as the Islamic Development Organization are under his supervision and, inevitably, fill some of his time. What’s more, the Supreme Leader has representatives in many other countries and tries to be a defining influence on Muslims around the world. Domestic organizations such as Al-Mustafa International University and the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, which that cater to religious and cultural activities abroad are generally supervised by the Supreme Leader too.
Khamenei is also responsible for coordinating the three branches of government, and must spend time on resolving issues between them. He appoints the head of the judiciary, members of the Expediency Council, members of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, his own representatives in various agencies, universities and military institutions and Friday Imams across the country and must spend at least some time supervising them.
The Supreme Leader also has an effective hand in controlling the flow of information in the country. He appoints the president of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the managing editors of newspapers such as Kayhan and Ettela'at, and must be spending at least some time with them.
The claim that Khamenei spends most of his time with the needy and the families of martyrs and veterans therefore cannot supported by the known facts.
Does Khamenei Live a Lower-Middle-Class Life?
Before answering this question, there are three points worth making on background:
According to his personal website, before the Islamic Revolution Khamenei lived in poverty. In his memoirs he writes: “My parental home, where I was born and in which we lived until I was four or five, was a 60- to 70-square meter house in a poor neighborhood of Mashhad. It had just one room and a dark and suffocating basement.
“My father was a clergyman and people came to him. When he had guests, all of us had to go to the basement until the guests went away. Later, a number of people who revered my father purchased a little piece of land next to us and added it to our house. Then we had three rooms.”
Elsewhere, in a part of his memoirs entitled The Patient Spouse, he writes. “I was penniless when I lived in Qom, and I was penniless in Mashhad as well, but this time I lived with a wife who was not familiar with the bitter taste of being destitute.”
On returning to Mashhad from Qom Seminary, Khamenei writes that when he was leaving home one morning, his wife told him they had nothing to eat for lunch and he ought to get something. Then, he recounts, as he was walking through the city’s backstreets, he remembered her request: “I put my hand in my pocket. My upper pockets were completely empty. In my lower pockets I found around four rials... I burst out laughing and said, ‘Praise God!’.
“I really did have nothing. It wasn’t as if I could go to somebody and get money, or withdraw it from the bank... I had neither one rial of savings nor any other prospects. In such times, it was very hard on me.”
In other words, as Khamenei tells it, life before the revolution was not even that of an impoverished worker but he had no means of earning his daily bread.
That means that whatever he owns now he gained after the revolution.
Because of the lack of transparency in the Islamic Republic, we have no information about Khamenei’s personal assets or properties that belong to him and his family. His only public address is the building he lives and conducts his official business. The house and the hosseiniyeh Rouhani said are his only personal properties are in the same location.
Even were this land his only asset, however, Khamenei could not be said to be living a sub-standard life. Even were the hosseiniyeh and his residence, in the part of Tehran in which they lie, his only possessions, he could not be said to be so much as lower-middle class, but astronomically wealthy.
We have no information about the other personal properties and assets owned by Ali Khamenei, directly or indirectly. But we can estimate how much it would cost for him to be living at the level of a lower-middle-class family in Iran.
In the Statistical Center of Iran’s 2018 report on household budgets, households were sorted into 10 average income-and-expense deciles. On the assumption that the 4th and 5th are the roughly lower-middle-class ones, this is how they were faring as of late 2019, adjusted for the 27-percent annual rate of inflation and according to the open-market dollar price in 2019:
4th Decile: According to the Statistical Center’s report, households in the 4th decile spent around two million tomans ($154) per month. Of this amount around 1.76 million ($136) was spent on non-food expenses and around 850,000 ($66) on food expenses. Households in this decile had an average monthly income of 3.2 million tomans ($247) of which around 600,000 ($46) was put into their savings. They usually live in a 92-square meter unit and pay an average monthly rent of 750,000 tomans ($58). They pay an average 107,000 tomans ($8.30) a month for water, gas and electricity. The average size of a 4th decile household is 3.45 people, and of this number, an average 1.45 had an income. The heads of these households were mainly drivers, machinery operators and assembly workers, followed by other industrial workers and service employees. Clothes and shoes cost the household roughly 69,000 tomans ($5.40) a month, which amounts to around 830,000 tomans ($64) per year. In a month, a household in this decile bought 30,000 tomans’ worth ($2.30) of cooking oil and 83,000 tomans’ worth ($6.50) of rice. Red meet in their food basket accounted for about 71,000 tomans ($5.50) and in a month, they bought 62,000 tomans’ ($4.80) worth of poultry. Each month they bought around 147,000 tomans’ ($11.35) worth of fruit and vegetables.
5th Decile: Households in the fifth decile had an average monthly income of 3.64 million tomans ($281). They saved about 600,000 tomans ($46.40) each month and spent almost three million tomans ($232): 910,000 ($70) on food, and around 2.1 million tomans ($162) on non-food items, including healthcare. These households were the closest to the national average and therefore could be considered the “middle” decile at the time. They paid around 850,000 tomans ($66) per month for housing and lived in units of an average 94 square meters. Rent constituted an average 17 percent of their expenses, and they paid 110,000 tomans ($8.5) for water, electricity and gas. The average size of a 5th decile household was 3.5, and of this number, an average 1.5 had an income. Heads of these households mostly worked in industry too, followed by drivers, operators and factory workers. Each month a household in this decile spent around 94,000 ($7.30) on rice and 33,000 ($2.6) on cooking oil, 87,000 tomans ($6.80) on red meat, 66,000 tomans ($510) on poultry, and 162,000 tomans ($12.50) on fruit and vegetable.
What About Ali Khamenei?
The characteristics of the life that the Supreme Leader leads is markedly different to those of these two deciles.
Under the opaque financial-bureaucratic system of the Islamic Republic we have no idea how much the Supreme Leader is paid. But according to Article 71 of Iran’s Civil Services Management Law, the heads of the three branches of government, the President, Chief Justice and the Head (also known as the Speaker) of Parliament are the highest-paid, followed by their deputies and members of the Guardian Council.
Khamenei was the president of the Islamic Republic for eight years and, according to Provision 3 of the same article, if a former president has a job that pays him less than 80 percent of the salary that he was receiving as president, the government pays him the difference.
Therefore if, despite receiving the highest salary and pension granted by the law, Khamenei lives a lower middle-class life, he is either incapable of managing his finances or has deliberately chosen to live that way, which is not the same thing.
It is, of course, quite possible that Khamenei has chosen such a life, although we have no evidence that he has. On the other hand, we have evidence that an enormous part of Iran’s wealth is controlled by the Supreme Leader. Khamenei’s personal fortune was estimated by Reuters in 2013 to be worth at least $95bn based on the value of Setad alone, a figure that even by itself would have made him one of the 10 richest individuals in the world. Each month vast amounts of money are moved around either on his orders or with his permission and, as of now, their sums and locations not been reported to the Iranian public. There are at least five financial powerhouses in Iran that operate and spend under the exclusive supervision of the Supreme Leader:
▪ The Mostazafan Foundation, a charitable foundation for Iran’s “downtrodden” citizens, is the second-largest commercial enterprise in Iran behind the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company and the biggest holdings company in the Middle East.
▪ The Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive, also known as the Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order or simply Setad.
▪ The RGC Cooperative Foundation, which receives its revenue from manufacturing, construction and commercial projects, joint operations with other organizations, financial help from the Revolutionary Guards, loans and donations from banks, and donations from the public. According to its statute, the foundation’s capital and properties belong to the Supreme Leader and, in the case of its liquidation, will be handed over to him after the payment of debts.
▪ Astan Quds Razavi, a religious foundation or bonyad that manages endowments and properties of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. In normal times, close to 20 million Shias visit the shrine each year and their donations are a major source of income for the foundation.
▪ The Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs and its affiliate the Kowsar Economic Organization. The Foundation receives its funding directly from the national budget and gives loans to disabled veterans and the families of “martyrs”. The Kowsar Organization is active in many economic sectors including mining, agriculture, healthcare, electronics, construction, animal husbandry, and hotels and hospitality.
The reality is that we have no idea how much money Ali Khamenei truly has control over. But it is big enough that a board of trustees comprising government ministers and the Islamic Republic’s most senior financial figures had to be created to administer it.
On April Fools Day, Mohammad Mehdi Golpayegani, Chief of Staff of the Office of the Supreme Leader, claimed: “The Exalted Leader mostly keeps company with the poor, the needy, the families of the martyrs and veterans... The living standards of the Exalted Supreme Leader are below average.” IranWire investigated his claims and arrived at the following conclusions.
In the Iranian calendar year of 1398 (March 21, 2019-March 19, 2020), Khamenei had a total of 70 officially-recorded meetings, none with “the poor and the needy”, and just one with laborers. He had a total of two meetings with the families of people called “martyrs” in the Islamic Republic, and one of those “martyrs” was Ghasem Soleimani. Given his vast range of responsibilities it is safe to presume Khamenei had far more off-the-books meetings than this, making it highly unlikely if not impossible that he “mostly” spent time with the poor.
No public information about Khamenei’s personal properties, assets or wealth is available but even if his own house and hosseiniyeh were all he owned, he would be vastly more well-off than most Iranians.
By his own account, Khamenei accumulated all his personal wealth after the revolution. The Civil Services Management law means he is paid at least as much as the president, while the record shows he controls vast swathes of Iran’s economy, with just one parastatal holdings firm assessed by Reuters to have been worth $95bn in 2013.
Therefore, and being charitable, IranWire awards the claim by Mohammad Mehdi Golpayegani, Khamenei’s chief of staff, that he mostly “keeps company with the poor, the needy, families of the martyrs and veterans” and he lives a life similar to that of a member of lower middle class, the “misleading” badge.
Misleading: Assertions that use selected facts to make false, unproven or unprovable claims.