Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, apparently has a number of surprising side ventures apart from running the Islamic Republic.
An investment firm that Khamenei controls has been accused of forcibly taking over an Iranian company that is the nation’s biggest dealer of German automobiles.
Ali Nouriyani, the managing director of Nouriyani Enterprises – which has served as Iran’s exclusive trade partner with Germany’s auto and printing industries -- told the Fararu news agency of Iran that he was pressured to sell his stake in his auto dealership to a charity operated by Khamenei’s office.
"These gentlemen from the Shah Abdol Azim religious charity came to see me and offered to buy out my shares and work with my enterprise," Nouriyani told Fararu.
"As I was interested in helping charities I accepted their offer and gradually reduced my level of working with them as they had by then virtually taken over most of the responsibilities. I had to offer them more of my own shares to enable them to carry out the responsibility [of the dealership of BMW cars] more effectively.”
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But it’s more complicated than this.
The Daily Telegraph of Britain reported the Rey Investment Co, a holding company run by Khamenei's Shah Abdol Azim charity, now claims to be the "sole representative of BMW in Iran."
Rey also boasts significant stakes in various other businesses, including oil, gas, food, construction, insurance and transport.
The current chairman of Rey, Mohammad Reyshahri, a former intelligence minister, was appointed directly by Khamenei. Reyshahri reportedly received this plum job as a reward for conspiring to remove Khamenei’s rival, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, from consideration as the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s Supreme Leader. (Montazeri was Khomeini’s deputy and widely expected successor.)
Another director of Rey, Mohammad Shariat Madari, is a close associate of Khamenei and advises him on foreign investments.
Nouriyani Enterprise's various business entities have been targeted periodically for confiscation by powerful mullahs since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Khamenei, who seeks to propagate an image of austerity and self-denial, reportedly receives substantial commission payments from Iran’s arms and petroleum industries, while claiming he receives a small salary from the government.
Khamenei’s true wealth is estimated to be immense, perhaps in the territory of tens of billions of dollars.
In May 2011, the Iran Channel, a news agency that calls for the establishment of a secular, democratic Iran, accused Khamenei and his son Mojtaba of having amassed more than $57 billion ($36 billion for the father, $21 billion for the son) through illegal means and stashing them in foreign bank accounts, including large deposits in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands and even China.
Various other Khamenei family members also have hundreds of millions of dollars stashed away in a bewildering array of foreign banks and financial institutions.
But why a BMW dealership?
Saeed Ghasseminejad, a spokesperson for the Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates Association in the U.S., wrote in the Times of Israel that Khamenei, like most Iranians, views BMW and Mercedes-Benz automobiles as the ultimate signs of wealth and status.
Ghasseminejad also alleges that Khamenei controls a vast financial empire through stewards, vassals and various fronts -- a conglomerate that pays no taxes and essentially operates independently from state control or oversight.
“While ordinary Iranian people are under huge economic pressure, BMW is providing luxury cars for the scions of the corrupt Mullahs, [Revolutionary Guard] officers and [senior government] officials,” Ghasseminejad wrote.
“And it is generating vast personal revenue for Ayatollah Khamenei, even while he continues to pursue a nuclear bomb … If that’s not good enough reason for BMW to re-think its business with Iran, perhaps the German conglomerate should stop doing business with the supreme leader of a regime whose president denies the Holocaust and whose leader implicitly promises us another one. “
Interestingly, compared to Khamenei, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whom the Supreme Leader has long had a contentious relationship with) is a relative pauper -- theRichest.org estimates his wealth at a mere $5 million.