Foundation's leadership may change
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
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)