By Farangis Najibullah and Arash Hassan Nia, RFE/RL
With an estimated net worth of nearly $14 billion, Babak Zanjani is possibly Iran's richest man. Little was known, however, about the tycoon at home or abroad until his name appeared late in 2012 in connection with Western economic sanctions imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Now the man blacklisted by the European Union and United States for playing what they say is a key role in evading those sanctions is feeling the heat from Iranian authorities, too.
Zanjani, who has referred to himself as an "economic basij" after the Iranian hard-line militia, was arrested on December 30 on corruption charges.
It's a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Zanjani, whose business empire, the Sorinet Group, reportedly includes some 65 companies that operate in Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Tajikistan.
Zanjani -- who the U.S. Treasury says was born in 1971 or 1974 -- is involved in a wide range of business interests from cosmetics, hospitality, and transport to construction and banking. He owns a soccer club, Rah Ahan, and invests in Iranian cinema projects.
Zanjani, who mainly resides in Dubai and Turkey, has insisted in the past he is not involved in politics, saying, "I just do business." However, in December last year the European Union named Zanjani "a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil-related money."
In April, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Zanjani, along with several companies, accusing them of trying to evade the sanctions by moving billions of dollars on behalf of the government in Tehran.
At the time, Zanjani denied any wrongdoing and shrugged off the blacklisting, saying it was good for business.
But in recent interviews with Iranian media, Zanjani acknowledged that since 2010 he had been complying with a request by the Central Bank of Iran to help bring desperately needed oil revenues into the country.
Mysterious 'Mr. Z'
Meanwhile, at home in Iran, it was another scandal that revealed Zanjani's apparent links to politicians.
In January 2013, in a row in parliament, then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad accused a brother of political rival Ali Larijani, then the parliament speaker, of taking bribes from a mysterious "Mr. Z."
Ahmadinejad stopped short of disclosing the full name. But a video recording and several photos were soon posted on the Internet showing Zanjani in the company of well-connected Iranian officials, including Larijani's brother, Fazel.
Zanjani has shrugged off bribery claims and says the meeting with Fazel Larijani was accidental.
He also has laughed off a photo showing him carrying a gun. "The photo is real but it was taken 15 years ago in Iraq," Zanjani told the BBC in a rare interview. "It's common there to carry weapons for security reasons," he said.
Photos on Zanjani's Facebook page depict his softer side -- they show him playing a violin, riding a motorbike, or eating out with friends. The Facebook photos also show Zanjani attending various meetings, traveling, visiting construction sites, and giving interviews.
In a recent interview to Iranian media, the unmarried businessman said he hailed from a humble background, and that his father was a railway worker. Zanjani said he got his first business experience working as a driver for the head of the Central Bank before moving to Turkey and amassing a fortune there.
In recent years he has also been a frequent visitor to Tajikistan, where he has investments including a bus station, a hypermarket, and a construction business in Dushanbe. (Here he is dancing at an event in the southern Tajik town of Norak.)
The wealthy businessman put his success down to God's help and luck. His luck, however, seems to be unravelling now, as he was reportedly taken to Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Iran's state-run Press TV quoted the head of the Supreme Audit Court, Amin Hossein Rahimi, as saying Zanjani had been tasked by the National Iranian Oil Company with exporting oil worth $3 billion. Zanjani is accused of withholding millions in oil revenue.
Investigations into his business dealings initially came in September, when parliament accused of failing to return the state's money. His arrest came a day after President Hassan Rohani vowed to fight financial corruption, especially among "privileged figures" who have taken advantage of economic sanctions.
Zanjani has denied the claims. He has also denied accusations about his alleged involvement in a high-profile corruption scandal that recently heightened political tensions and sparked street protests in neighboring Turkey.
Written by Farangis Najibullah with contribution by RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Arash Hassan Nia
Copyright (c) 2014 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
Iran lawmakers accuse billionaire Zanjani of corruption - Twelve Iranian parliamentarians have accused Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani of corruption, calling for an inquiry into his financial activities, Press TV reports. The Iranian parliamentarians made the request through a letter to the heads of the three branches of the Iranian government. 12/30/13
Iran: President Rohani Targets Profiteers Exploiting Sanctions - Iranian President Hassan Rohani has called for a task force to combat those who are driving up their profits by taking advantage of the sanctions. Iranian media reported on Saturday December 28 that deputy president Eshagh Jahangiri has been appointed as the head of this task force, and the government has announced that "healthy economic activity is a priority of the government." 12/29/13
Turkish Corruption Scandal Fallout Could Spread Across Region - A corruption scandal rocking Turkey forced sudden turnover in the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As uncertainty spreads, there's a chance the impact could extend beyond Turkey's borders. -Jeff Seldin, VOA 12/27/13
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