A leaked audio clip confirming Revolutionary Guards commanders' involvement in massive financial corruption during Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s tenure as mayor of Tehran has caused uproar in Iran and overseas.
This week Radio Farda published a 50-minute audio recording of a 2018 meeting between ex-IRGC commander-in-chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who held the post from 2007 to 2019, and Brigadier General Sadegh Zolghadr-Nia, the IRGC’s deputy commander for economic affairs.
In it, the pair discuss the recent, infamous Yas Holding Company corruption case and IRGC commanders' attempts to help cover it up. Zolghadr-Nia says that Ghalibaf – a former IRGC commander himself – was trying to use his influence with the Guards to keep the case quiet, and that Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC's Intelligence Organization, was supporting him in doing so.
The Yas Holding Company case related to more than $3bn worth of funds said to have been "embezzled" from Tehran Municipality. The money was paid to this firm, which was owned by the IRGC’s Cooperatives Foundation, for massively over-priced construction projects agreed during Ghalibaf’s tenure. Several IRGC commanders sat on the board of Yas Holding at the time. But it was Isa Sharifi, Ghalibaf’s former deputy, who was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the scam.
In the leaked audio recording, both men express their satisfaction that they were able to stop the repayment of eight trillion tomans (close to $2 billion) rightly owed by the IRGC to the municipality. “If you’d paid this money, what the hell would we do now?” says Jafari. “This is why Ghalibaf is unhappy with you.”
Zolghadr-Nia also alleges that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf tried to force him to sign a memorandum of understanding to settle the dispute. “Ghalibaf came up to me in front of a mosque near our homes and told me to sign it,” he says. “‘It’s against the law,’ I told him. 'It would damage you, damage me and damage Jafari. I’m not signing it.’”
But Hossein Taeb’s support of Ghalibaf, the pair acknowledge, was proving problematic; Taeb allegedly told the office of the Supreme Leader that Zolghadr-Nia was a “leftist”.
In the same recording, General Jafari can also be heard expressing his glee that Ghasem Soleimani, the late commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, had been forced to intervene in the Yas Holding case himself as the Quds Force had reportedly been left more than $200m out of pocket by the scandal. “Ghasem is just learning what Yas has done to him,” he says.
Soleiman is said to have been upset by actions taken by Jafari and Zolghadr-Nia against the culprits in the Yas Holding case and even complained to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei about it. In the recording, Zolghadr-Nia says that Khamenei had ordered for 90 percent of the money taken in by Yas Holding to be used to finance the Qods Force.
The pair also talk about how to keep Jamaleddin Aberumand, chairman of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, from being hauled before a court for his part in the swindle. Zolghadr-Nia says the Cooperatives Foundation was more than $250m in debt to the Quds Force but in the circumstances, the body should simply be dissolved. He adds that “it is not clear” where all the money went.
The pair also discuss other colleagues’ potential involvement in the corruption. Jafari says of Masoud Mehrdadi, the Cooperative Foundation’s then-vice president for financial affairs: “Shouldn’t he be held accountable too, for so much money being embezzled by others and his own failure to supervise them?”
Hardliners Scramble to Absolve IRGC and Ghalibaf
General Jafari was removed as commander-in-chief of the IRGC a year early in 2019, by order of Ayatollah Khamenei. It has long been rumored that the dismissal had to do with corruption at the top levels of the IRGC on his watch. This has not stopped key officials and propaganda organs in Iran from leaping to Jafari and Ghalibaf’s defense.
Fars News Agency, a media outlet affiliated with Revolutionary Guards, has confirmed the authenticity of the tape. So far no relevant officials have denied that the content is genuine, though some have tried to dismiss its publication as “psychological warfare”.
Hossein Shariatmadari, the Supreme Leader-appointed managing editor of the hardline newspaper Kayhan, confirmed corruption in the IRGC but tried to defend General Jafari and Ghalibaf’s reputation in the aftermath of the leak. “This case has gone to trial and the culprit has been sentenced,” he said. “Once he was convinced [the corruption] really happened, General Jafari ordered Sharifi’s dismissal and turned him over to the judiciary.” This was a curious and patently false claim; General Jafari would have had no authority to dismiss Sharifi because he was by then an employee of Tehran Municipality, not the IRGC. Shariatmadari also said that Ghalibaf himself had “smartly” brought back his deputy from abroad to Iran and arranged for him to be arrested.
Others who defended the pair included Abdollah Ganji, managing editor of the Tehran Municipality-owned newspaper Hamshahri, and Mojtaba Tavangar, a member of the parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee, who accused “the enemy” of trying to defame the IRGC and Ghalibaf. “You can find corrupt people in every group, including the Guards and the clergy,” wrote Ganj, as though this excused the matter. “An example is the latrine next to a mosque. It is mosque that people pay attention to.”
Naturally there have also been official efforts to distance the memory of General Soleimani from the grubby case of corruption at Tehran Municipality. IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif denied that Soleimani had had any role in the dealings, while Shariatmadari demanded to know: "The Qods Force was supposed to have a share of the revenues of the said firm [Yas Holdings]. What is wrong or dirty about this?”