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Foundation's leadership may change

Iran Report
21 June 1999

(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) - Recent reports about the involvement of an Iranian charitable foundation in a joint-venture with a Norwegian oil exploration company reveal the political, economic, and financial power of these para-statal bodies. These, in turn, indicate that although the foundation's leadership may change soon, its activities will not.

Mohammad Sahfi, director-general of public relations for the Petroleum Ministry, dismissed reports in April that the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation will enter into a joint venture with a European firm for oil exploration, extraction, and sales. Sahfi said all upstream activities are under the Oil Ministry's monopoly, IRNA reported. Sahfi's distinction was hardly accurate.

In fact, the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation is the Iranian partner of Norwegian firm Norex in a long-term agreement to collect and process seismic data on the entire Iranian offshore sector. In a project authorized by the National Iranian Oil Company, Norex will shoot seismic readings over a two by two kilometer grid covering Iranian sectors of the Persian Gulf in a project called "Persian Carpet 2000." Norex is encouraging the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait to allow work across their maritime borders, the "Middle East Economic Survey" reported on 31 May.

It is estimated that the project will cost $100 million. Companies can participate in the project by underwriting the exploration with up-front cash payments of several million dollars. American companies can participate without making the initial payments.

Some 19 companies are supervised by the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation's Mines and Oil Branch. The Brookings Institute's Suzanne Maloney, who has studied Iran's foundations, adds: "[Oppressed and Disabled Foundation] subsidiaries trade crude oil on the world market through a U.K. subsidiary."

When it was created in 1979, the foundation's assets originated with those confiscated from the Pahlavi Foundation and then from nationalized assets of Iran's 51 largest industrialists. It operated with government support until the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

The elimination of government subsidies coincided with the appointment of a new director, Mohsen Rafiqdust. A decade after his appointment, Rafiqdust claimed to have turned an organization losing billions of rials into a profit-maker, "Hamshahri" reported in November 1998.

Now, according to its website, the hundreds of companies owned by the foundation are involved in agriculture, transportation, commerce, tourism, civil development, and housing. The foundation is estimated to have $12 billion in assets and 400,000-700,000 employees. Parliament's efforts to get firm figures, through the Article 90 Committee, have been fruitless. Rafiqdust meets complaints about the lack of transparency by describing the social benefits of the foundation's assistance.

In fact, charitable work has earned the support of a large constituency, which also dampens parliamentary criticism. The foundation provides housing and financial support for those who are 70 percent or more disabled in the war. It also provides academic and vocational training, as well as employment. When the unemployment rate is 14-20 percent, this is valuable. Grants are given to poor students, schools are built, and recreational facilities are offered.

Its beneficiaries are not the foundation's only base of support. Its director is appointed by the Supreme Leader. Its leadership, including Rafiqdust himself, is closely connected with Iran's powerful bazaar. Also, Rafiqdust was minister of the Revolutionary Guard Corps when it was still a ministry, and foundation companies serve as fronts for the IRGC's purchase of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons components, according to Germany's dpa news agency.

When Rafiqdust was absolved of involvement in an embezzlement case, complaints were made about the conservative-run judiciary's performance, according to the 15 May "Aban." The foundation's tourism business supports the conservative Ansar-e Hezbollah, alleges "Iran-i Farda." Rafiqdust's personal stature also is connected with his serving as personal bodyguard to the Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi-Khomeini.

Recent reports indicate that Rafiqdust will soon step down as the foundation's director when his term ends in July, but there probably will not be much change in the way it operates. A likely replacement, according to the 7 June "Jomhuri-yi Islami," is former Commerce Minister Yahya Al-e Eshaq, who is a current member of the foundation's Board of Directors. Clearly, the foundation is too deeply embedded in Iran domestic and foreign affairs to be changed very soon. (Bill Samii)


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