New York Times: He called himself the “economic basij,” a reference to Iran’s hard-line paramilitary organization and defender of the Islamic Revolution. He drove a black Mercedes 500 SL and wore a $30,000 watch, as befits a man who put his self-worth at $13.5 billion.
The New York Times
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — He called himself the “economic basij,” a reference to Iran’s hard-line paramilitary organization and defender of the Islamic Revolution. He drove a black Mercedes 500 SL and wore a $30,000 watch, as befits a man who put his self-worth at $13.5 billion.
Not bad for a 39-year-old who began his career in the 1980s selling sheepskins and emerged more recently as a critical actor in Iran’s effort to evade United States sanctions on its oil sales.
But it has all come tumbling down for the tycoon, Babak Zanjani, whose accounts were frozen by the United States Treasury in April and who has been blacklisted by the European Union.
Adding to his troubles, he has come under scrutiny by officials of the new pragmatist Iranian government, who suspect him of having worked with what they considered the corrupt inner circle of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They accused Mr. Zanjani last week of withholding $1.9 billion in oil revenues, prompting Parliament to begin an investigation into his business dealings.
His rise and now possible fall have opened a window into the secretive, shadowy world of Iranian tycoons who have made their fortunes, at least in part, by helping Iran evade the sanctions intended to thwart its nuclear program.
Mr. Zanjani’s business empire has been the stuff of Iranian lore for years, but as he comes under heavier pressure, he has begun publicly defending himself in the Iranian press and boasting about the extensive network he developed to help Iran sell its oil and repatriate the profits — some of which, he acknowledges, went into his own pocket.
It is not just the new government that has suspicions about Mr. Zanjani, whose climb to the peaks of wealth has been chronicled faithfully by the Iranian news media. “In Iran everybody who becomes rich fast is regarded as suspicious,” said Mohammad Khoshchehreh, an economist and former centrist lawmaker. “In all honesty, we don’t know whether he is a hero or a cheat.”
The waxing and waning of Mr. Zanjani’s business career also reflect the recent history of the United States-led sanctions against Iran. Once relatively easily circumvented, the sanctions have become more sophisticated, focused and effective, eliminating the opportunities for sharp operators like Mr. Zanjani to exploit. His troubles mirror, to some extent, the fate of the Iranian government, which even its leaders now admit is facing a hard-currency squeeze.
“The sanctions have pushed Iran’s economy into chaos,” said Reza Zandi, an investigative journalist who interviewed Mr. Zanjani for a reformist weekly magazine, Aseman. “Babak Zanjani is the product of this situation, amassing enormous wealth in the process” but now under siege.
Beginning in 2010, Mr. Zanjani, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told the magazine and, in a separate meeting, the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency that he used a spider web of 64 companies in Dubai, Turkey and Malaysia to sell millions of barrels of oil, earning $17.5 billion in desperately needed foreign exchange for Iran’s Oil Ministry, Revolutionary Guards and central bank.
“The central bank was running out of money,” he said in the Aseman interview, published last week. In 2010, “they asked me to bring their oil money into Iran so the system could use it,” Mr. Zanjani said of Iran’s political establishment. “So that is what I did.”
Among the companies he was controlling were a Turkish airline, various financial institutions and a fleet of oil tankers, many of which he put to use in evading the sanctions.
He devised a scheme to disguise the origins of Iranian oil and sell it on the open market, transferring millions of barrels from tanker to tanker — often in a little-known harbor on the tiny Malaysian island of Labuan in 2012, the European Union charges.
He devised a scheme to disguise the origins of Iranian oil and sell it on the open market, transferring millions of barrels from tanker to tanker — often in a little-known harbor on the tiny Malaysian island of Labuan in 2012, the European Union charges. In total, he said, he sold 24 million barrels of oil to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and India and then laundered the money through Malaysian First Islamic Bank, which is now on all the sanctions lists.
“This is what I do — antisanctions operations,” Mr. Zanjani said. “I am a businessman who has done his job well. Since I was placed under sanctions they haven’t managed to sell even three million barrels of oil.”
Mr. Zanjani is sparse with details about his early business dealings, but admitted in the magazine interview that he had gotten his big break in 1999, when he became the driver for Mohsen Nourbaksh, the chief of Iran’s central bank. Mr. Zanjani displayed a talent for money changing, and said he was quickly earning around $17,000 a day — his cut on all the currency deals.
“This might be hard to believe, but God has helped me all my life,” he said.
In 2010 he was approached by Khatam al-Anbia, the engineering arm of the Revolutionary Guards, which was prevented by the sanctions from repatriating money from abroad. Using his own bank, Mr. Zanjani said, he managed to get the group $40 million in a couple of days.
From then on, state institutions started seeking his help, turning him into what insiders said was the most powerful middleman of the Iranian oil industry. “He would sit in at meetings of the cabinet directly dealing with the former oil minister, Rostam Qasemi,” said a person with knowledge of the meetings.
As for the $1.9 billion that officials now say he owes the government, Mr. Zanjani said that he already paid $700 million but that the sanctions prevent him from transferring the remaining $1.2 billion to the Oil Ministry.
“I will pay it back if they give me an account number tomorrow that accepts up to one billion euro,” said Mr. Zanjani, who is believed to be in Iran. “How can I transfer the money when the Oil Ministry and the central bank are under sanctions? We also are not able to transfer the money, but the money is in the account.” The businessman said he did not take more than 0.007 percent interest in all of the transactions.
On Thursday, Mr. Zanjani’s fortunes took another hit when a road in the upscale Shahrak-e Gharb neighborhood sank into a 130-foot-deep pit, right next to a huge site where Mr. Zanjani’s construction company, Sorinet, is building a 27-floor shopping mall, complete with a waterfall the height of the complex, a five-star hotel and a huge rooftop garden.
“If all else fails,” said one man pointing at the building site, so far just a 4,500-square-foot hole, “Mr. Zanjani can use the hole to stash his money in.”