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Iran’s supreme leader built a real estate empire on seized property

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot at his office during the Iranian presidential election in central Tehran June 14, 2013. Iranians voted for a new president on Friday urged by Khamenei to turn out in force to discredit suggestions by arch foe the United States that the election would be unfair.
Reuters/Fars News/Hassan Mousavi
Iran’s supreme leader is also its supreme landlord.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When we found out that Iran had secretly owned a Manhattan skyscraper for decades, we knew the country’s rulers had a talent for moving money, but a new Reuters investigation has revealed a $95 billion corporate empire controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

At least some of that revenue comes from the confiscation of property from religious minorities and other presumed enemies of the state, Reuters reports, and the organization, known in Farsi as Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate, provides Iran’s supreme leader with significant economic clout and independence from the elected government. Iran’s parliament even declared that it would be prohibited from exercising any oversight over the Khamenei’s business interests in 2008.

Setad reported $52 billion in real estate investments in 2008. Today, that would make it larger than major real estate firms like the US’s Simon Property Group and comparable to Blackstone, which bills itself as the largest private real estate fund in the world with $69 billion in assets under management.

Setad was originally set up by the first supreme leader after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which overthrew a Western-backed autocracy in favor of an Islamic government. It’s public mission was intended manage properties abandoned or seized during the revolution for charitable aims and then shut down when the assets were disposed of.

Under Khamenei, who came to power in 1989, Setad has grown into a massive conglomerate. According to the US Treasury Department, which has sanctioned its holdings, Setad controls 37 companies directly, including one worth $40 billion, and maintains stakes in dozens of public and private companies. It also has a charitable trust with additional holdings, akin to the one that ended up controlling that New York skyscraper seized from the former Shah of Iran. While it’s impossible to know for sure exactly where the profit goes, Reuters reports the company has been re-investing the money to grow the firm, paying for the Ayatollah’s 500-person executive staff, and providing some charitable benefits.

Most disturbing, however, is the continued practice of seizing property belonging to members of the Baha’i, a minority religious group, and others accused of acting against the regime. According to Iranians interviewed by Reuters, Setad obtains court orders allowing them to seize properties and send agents to dump occupants and possessions alike onto the streets. Even when Setad’s targets have managed to successfully fight back through Iran’s legal system, it involves paying significant sums of money—often 20% of the property value—to well-connected insiders.

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