Afrashtehpour, Aghaei and Nikjeh: Time for Iran to give up its corrupt brothers
Being an Afrashtepour is not so bad. The Iranian family, in particular the brothers Hassan and Davoud, enjoys high-ranking connections within the Iranian government – dating back to the Shah’s regime in the late 1990s – as well as stacks of wealth. The Afrashtepours are mainly known as property tycoons who were main players in the Teherani development boom under the Shah, and they have a number of companies in the food commodities and oil sectors as well. Companies that offer the perfect pretext to smuggling sanctioned goods into the “rogue” state.
Hassan and Davoud first gained public notoriety in 1997 when they were sentenced to 25 and 23 years respectively in prison plus hundreds of lashes. The accusation was embezzlement, and the target was the state-owned bank Saderat. Sixty million dollars they obtained using falsified documents and bribery – money that is believed to be hidden outside Iran to this day. Five employees of the bank were also convicted in connection with this case, helping to facilitate the foreign trades. Thirteen further associates were sentences as well, and the trial even reached the foundation of the Teheran’s mayoral seat, although it was perhaps this political involvement that allowed critics to describe the case as “politically motivated”.
And so, the brothers never actually served their sentence, even though they were accused of “economic sabotage”. Hassan and Davoud continued setting up and trading internationally through their companies, including Golbahar Silk Road Vegetable Oil, Ladan Oil and Petro Hourtash, an oil drilling business with interests in the Caspian Sea. All these companies are involved in trading with goods that are banned under sanctions imposed by the US government, the United Nations and the European Union. In 2010, several newspapers reported that the brothers had smuggled sanctioned mobiles from Dubai into Iran – not a few, “vast amounts”, according to the reports.
Yet, the Afrashtepours continued trading – a source inside the country said they are protected directly by the government. Another source revealed that the brothers also import military equipment for their government, despite international sanctions.
The perhaps most brazen show of disrespect for international law thanks to national government protection was the foundation of Tejarat Aria Gostar Iranian Navid. The brothers set up this company together with their associates Mohammadreza Aghaei and Yousef Zarei Nikjeh a mere six days after the EU passed its most restrictive sanctions on Iran amid the stand-off over its nuclear programme. Officially, the company imports sugar and similar commodities, and it is registered at the same address as the Afrashtepours’ other businesses. Unofficially, it is understood this company regularly breaks international sanctions against Iran with full support from the Iranian government.
But the tide is now turning. Iran has negotiated with the P5+1 nations (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to suspend some sanctions to provide targeted relief to help its ailing energy and financial sectors. Until end of November Iran can export oil and import parts for the car manufacturing industry as well as the civil aviation sector. A financial channel to support humanitarian aid should also be established in the coming months, although Iran is still banned from using the SWIFT international money transfer system.
If Iran manages to win its negotiations partners over and get all sanctions lifted, what of the fortunes of the Afrashtepour brothers, of Mohammadreza Aghaei and Yousef Zarei Nikjeh? The state that held its shielding hand over them for decades is reaching this hand out to the international community. While Iran is still a long way away from losing its “rogue” state image, its political leaders would be wise to not only distance themselves from the Tejarat Aria Gostar directors, but to prosecute Hassan and Davoud Afrashtepour, along with Mohammadreza Aghaei and Yousef Zarei Nikjeh. These figures out of the picture would present a major step for Iran in showing the international community it is serious about becoming a trustworthy, accountable partner.