A nuclear threat to the rest of the world, Iran is robbing its own people of prosperity. But the men at the top are getting extremely rich.
|Millionaire Mullahs - |
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Suddenly there's thunder in the air. A gang of 30 motorcyclists, brandishing iron bars and clubs as big as baseball bats, roars through the stalled traffic. They glare at the drivers, yell threats, thump cars. Burly and bearded, the bikers yank two men from their auto and pummel them. Most protesters scatter. Uniformed policemen watch impassively as the thugs beat the last straggler.
Who controls today's Iran? Certainly not Mohammad Khatami, the twice-elected moderate president, or the reformist parliament. Not even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a stridently anti-American but unremarkable cleric plucked from the religious ranks 14 years ago to fill the shoes of his giant predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, is fully in control. The real power is a handful of clerics and their associates who call the shots behind the curtain and have gotten very rich in the process.
The economy bears more than a little resemblance to the crony capitalism that sprouted from the wreck of the Soviet Union. The 1979 revolution expropriated the assets of foreign investors and the nation's wealthiest families; oil had long been nationalized, but the mullahs seized virtually everything else of value--banks, hotels, car and chemical companies, makers of drugs and consumer goods. What distinguishes Iran is that many of these assets were given to Islamic charitable foundations, controlled by the clerics. According to businessmen and former foundation executives, the charities now serve as slush funds for the mullahs and their supporters.
Ironically, the man most adept at manipulating this hidden power structure is one of Iran's best-known characters--Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been named an ayatollah, or religious leader. He was the speaker of parliament and Khomeini's right-hand man in the 1980s, president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 and is now chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, which resolves disputes between the clerical establishment and parliament. Rafsanjani has more or less run the Islamic Republic for the past 24 years.
"They were not rich people, so they worked hard and always tried to help their relatives get ahead," remembers Reza, a historian who declines to use his last name and who studied with one of Rafsanjani's brothers at Tehran University in the early 1970s. "When they were in university, two brothers earned money on the side tutoring theological students and preparing their exam papers."
Disaffected, denied opportunity and just plain bored, Iran's youth have taken their frustrations with the clerics' regime to the streets.