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Rags To Riches To Death Row: The Rise And Fall Of An Iranian Billionaire

Babak Zanjani, the billionaire Iranian businessman accused of corruption, said he was proud to have helped the country sell oil when its economy was suffering.

Babak Zanjani, one of Iran's richest men, once attributed his business success to God and luck. But his fortunes began to turn when the presidency changed hands in 2013. And with the death sentence he was given for corruption this week, his luck appears to have run out entirely.

Zanjani was arrested in December 2013, just weeks after Hassan Rohani -- who vowed during his campaign to crack down on endemic corruption -- was sworn in as president.

Under Rohani's predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Zanjani was somewhat of a hero. As Iran suffered from crippling international sanctions imposed over its controversial nuclear program, the tycoon was seen as using his business savvy and contacts to find customers for Iranian oil abroad, skirting the sanctions and bringing much-needed cash into the country. For his efforts, he was blacklisted by both the European Union and the United States.

Rohani and a handful of lawmakers, however, singled out Zanjani as a shocking example of corruption, alleging the businessman withheld much of the money he received from oil sales. When his case went to trial, prosecutors said Zanjani had misappropriated at least $2.7 billion that rightfully belonged to the state.

On March 6, a judiciary spokesman announced the culmination of the rare, months-long, public trial: the 41-year-old Zanjani had been found guilty of being a corruptor on Earth -- defined in the Iranian Penal Code as an individual who contributes to the deviation of society -- and had been sentenced to death. In addition, Zanjani was ordered to pay back the money he was found to have embezzled, plus one-quarter of that amount.

The total cost to Zanjani: his life and about $3.4 billion.

Many Corruptors

Conservative media outlets in Iran reacted to the ruling by simply reporting the judiciary's sentence. But more moderate publications went big with the story -- publishing large photos of Zanjani and calling for others tied to him and the Ahmadinejad government to be brought to trial.

Many Iranians don't believe Zanjani, who has an estimated worth of about $13 billion, could have acted alone.

Tehran-based lawyer Nemat Ahmadi tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that it would be impossible to do business on such a grand scale without help. "You can't go to oil authorities and tell them, 'I'm a businessman, give me access to oil to do business,'" he says.

Ahmad Alawi, a Swedish-based Iranian economist and university professor, says that Zanjani wasn't the only one involved in the Iranian government's dubious business dealings during the sanctions era.

Alawi says that the government turned to Zanjani and other businesspeople and companies in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and other places for help to evade Western sanctions on oil sales.

Tens of billions of dollars were at stake -- with oil prices enjoying record highs.

"Even small and not-quite-so reliable oil companies" were approached by the Iranian government to take part in selling Iranian oil because the government needed hard currency, Alawi says. "It wasn't an ordinary time for Iran, and the authorities would prefer to use such people to transfer the money from oil revenues to Iran."

Zanjani, whom the European Union named "a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil-related money," was one such individual.

End Of The Rope

He has admitted selling millions of barrels of Iranian oil on behalf the government after 2010, through a network of companies in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia.

Zanjani denies any wrongdoing, however. In a letter sent from prison to Iranian lawmakers, Zanjani said he was proud to have helped the country sell oil when its economy was suffering.

The billionaire -- whose Sorinet Group reportedly includes some 65 companies operating in Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Tajikistan -- argued that the sanctions made it impossible for him to transfer oil revenue back to the state.

Zanjani, who is unmarried, comes from humble beginnings.

The son of a railway worker, he has said he got his first business experience working as a driver for the head of the Central Bank. Later, he moved to Turkey, where started to build his fortune. He has been involved in a wide range of businesses -- including cosmetics, hospitality, transportation, construction, and banking.

He claims to have paid a heavy price for his success. Prior to his arrest he said he had incurred large debts, and after spending more than two years in prison he is seemingly down to his last.

Zanjani does have the right to appeal his sentence. Should that process not go his way he will likely join Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, put to death in 2014, among Iranian billionaires recently executed for corruption.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, with interviews by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.