The U.S. Should Sanction Iran’s Key Slush Fund and Its Brutal Custodian

Ebrahim Raisi arrives with a crowd of supporters to vote in Tehran, Iran, in 2017. (TIMA/via Reuters)
Former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi runs a massive business conglomerate that helps Tehran suppress dissent at home and export terror abroad.

At first, he couldn’t identify the sound. But Amir Atiabi, an inmate in Iran’s Gohardasht Prison, was curious. Over the course of several nights in 1988, he recalled, “strange noises that sounded like the dropping of cooking-gas containers” reverberated from trucks in the jail’s loading dock. Each time, he marked the date on his calendar. On some days, the sound echoed through his cell as many as 50 to 55 times.

Eventually, he discovered the truth. One night, Atiabi said, he and his fellow prisoners “went to the end of the corridor to the shower room and toilettes and climbed up to see through the window what the hell this truck is doing in the middle of the night. We had never seen such a thing. Then we realized they were loading dead bodies onto the trucks.”

“After a while,” he added, “the noises would stop because when you put bodies on top of other bodies you won’t hear the noise anymore.”

Thirty years later, the systematic massacre of thousands of political dissidents remains the single bloodiest atrocity committed by the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979. However, the perpetrators have yet to face justice. One of them, in fact, former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, currently serves as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a massive business conglomerate with a real-estate portfolio worth an estimated $20 billion, which effectively functions as a slush fund for Iran’s supreme leader. Raisi helps generate the funds that enable Tehran to suppress dissent at home and export terror abroad. As a matter of justice and strategy, it’s long past time for Washington to sanction Raisi and Astan Quds Razavi.

In the summer of 1988, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sentencing regime opponents to death, declaring them “apostates of Islam” who “wage war on God.” In the months that followed, Iran established, in prisons throughout the country, panels known as Death Commissions. They decided who would live and who would die, usually on the basis of interrogations only several minutes in length. Raisi served on a four-member commission that presided over the slaughter of inmates in Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious jail, as well as Gohardasht Prison.

In 2016, an audio recording from 1988 emerged of a meeting between Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a deputy and heir apparent to Khomeini, and Raisi and the other three members of the commission. In an extraordinary rebuke, Montazeri told the panel, “In my opinion, the greatest crime committed under the Islamic Republic, from the beginning of the Revolution until now, is this crime committed by you.” The commission members, he added, “will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals.” Khomeini later stripped Montazeri of his clerical rank and role as designated successor, while Raisi continued his rise.

Since the early 1980s, Raisi has served in multiple positions in Iran’s judiciary, which remains devoid of meaningful due process. As a prosecutor between 1980 and 1994, he routinely sought draconian punishments for political opponents of the regime. As a deputy chief justice from 2004 to 2014, he personally approved death penalties for scores of alleged offenders. On one occasion, he even lauded the amputation of a thief’s hand, calling it “divine punishment” and a “source of pride.” As the attorney general from 2014 to 2016, he presided over the prosecution of countless dissidents. Between 2004 and 2015, the number of executions gradually rose every year, from approximately 100 to nearly 1,000.

Nevertheless, though Raisi is well known in Iran, it wasn’t until he ran for president, in 2017, that he attained a measure of international prominence. The incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, wasted no time in attacking him for his role in the 1988 massacre, declaring that Iran’s people would “announce in this election that they don’t accept those who only knew executions and prison for 38 years.” In response, Raisi doubled down: His campaign page on the Telegram messaging service posted a video justifying the slaughter.

To be sure, Rouhani’s own record undermined his credibility: In 1988, he served as a member of Iran’s national security council, making him fully aware of and complicit in the bloodshed. Moreover, since Rouhani’s election as president in 2013, the United Nations has repeatedly criticized him for the pervasive human-rights violations under his watch. Still, Rouhani’s strategy appeared to work. Raisi lost the election after receiving only 38 percent of the vote.

Afterward, Raisi’s name largely faded from Western headlines. But today, he arguably occupies his most influential position yet in the regime. As the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, Raisi plays a key role in maintaining the financial empire that facilitates Tehran’s grip on power. The endowment presides over more than 100 businesses in a variety of fields, including car manufacturing, agriculture, financial services, construction, and oil and gas, many of which conduct business overseas. It also controls, on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan, a special economic zone that enables it to manage trade with central Asia.

Astan Quds Razavi — Persian for “the holy belongings of Imam Reza” — manages the Imam Reza Shrine, a vast complex, in Mashhad, that includes the world’s largest mosque by area, a library, and other religious institutions devoted to the memory of the eighth Shiite imam. Astan Quds Razavi also owns nearly half of the land in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city. Some 25 to 30 million pilgrims visit the Imam Reza Shrine annually, making Mashhad the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Raisi oversees these prodigious holdings and reports only to the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed him in March 2016. The endowment receives no oversight by any other government body, undermining any attempt to determine its full size and impact.

In 2017, Mapna Group, an energy company that, under Astan Quds Razavi’s jurisdiction, has multiple subsidiaries throughout the world, signed agreements with Damascus to rebuild the country’s power lines and power plants. As Ahmad Majidyar of the Middle East Institute noted at the time, these pacts have enabled Iran to consolidate its presence and influence in Syria. At the same time, they mitigate international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to end the war, thereby making Astan Quds Razavi an enabler of his atrocities.

The enormous wealth of Astan Quds Razavi makes it increasingly important for the Trump administration, as part of its maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, to isolate the foundation. In 2013, the Obama administration sanctioned the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, or EIKO, another foundation tied to the supreme leader. Like Astan Quds Razavi, EIKO has investments — worth an estimated $95 billion, according to a 2013 Reuters report — that remain off the books. And while the 2015 nuclear deal lifted the EIKO sanctions, the Trump administration is scheduled to reimpose them in November, pursuant to its withdrawal from the accord.

This move should constitute a first step in a larger effort to target all of Khamenei’s financial holdings. In the coming months, President Trump should use authorities provided by the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016 to freeze the assets of Astan Quds Razavi and punish any company that conducts business with it. At the same time, by sanctioning Raisi for his management of the foundation and for his human-rights abuses, the United States can make clear that it will hold Iranian leaders accountable for their crimes against humanity.


Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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