Iran’s Kleptocracy and Systematic Nepotism


Economic corruption has been an international problem for centuries. But when it comes to Iran, the word “corruption” misses the true misappropriation of public funds by the ruling theocracy. With its endemic nepotism and countless high-profile cases of embezzlement, the clerical regime is the true definition of a kleptocracy.

Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Iran 145thth from 180 countries. The monarchy (the Shah’s regime) that ruled Iran before the mullahs did was notorious for nepotism and state corruption, earning it the nickname “The Thousand Families” (Hezar family). But the mullahs’ regime that hijacked the 1979 anti-monarchy revolution has far surpassed the Shah’s economic mischief. Under the pretense of “fighting corruption,” regime officials have resorted to rampant and shameless deceit and systematic cronyism.

Technological advances and wider access to education in the 21st century have allowed more citizens to be elected to political office, gradually strengthening meritocracy. But that is not the case in Iran under the mullahs’ regime.

The state-run daily Jahan-e Sanat mocked the regime’s nepotism in a January 17 article, saying: “They come in buses and occupy high positions, and the only thing that doesn’t count is their merit. Criteria such as appropriate training and qualifications, background and experience cannot be found. Instead, we are only given their positions and managerial titles.”

Since Ebrahim Raisi became the regime’s president last year, the already staggering trend of appointing officials’ relatives and family members to key positions has increased. Many observers see the distribution of funds and positions to those close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as part of his policy of closing ranks on his increasingly fragile regime.

Some notable instances of nepotism in recent months are listed below. Though readily acknowledged even by the regime’s own media, on November 16 Raisi shamelessly claimed, “The nomination is based on competence and merit. Camaraderie, family and media pressure do not affect my choice.”

Days after Raisi’s false claims, a confidential letter was leaked from Raisi’s Petroleum Minister Javad Owji, in which he ordered the ministry’s human resources department to hire Nafiseh Sangdovini, the daughter of Ramazan Ali Sangdovini, an MP close to Raisi.

Health Minister Bahram Einollahi appointed his son-in-law as an advisor, even though he has absolutely no experience or expertise in the area he is supposed to impart wisdom on.

According to Al-Monitor, who is linked to Tehran, “Labour Minister Hojjatullah Abdul Maleki has appointed his wife’s brother as his own special adviser. Zanib Kadkhoda, a cousin of Raisi, was recently appointed Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at Tehran University. Also, Meysam Nili, the brother of Raisi’s son-in-law, recently joined the official news agency IRNA as a key member of the High Council.”

“The latest case [of nepotism] is that of Mehdi Rahimi, a relative of Farid Haddad Adel. Rahimi became head of public relations in the President’s office, despite only having a high school diploma. This is rather normal with a maddah [religious singer] Deputy Mayor of Tehran for promoting literacy,” wrote the daily Jahan-e Sanat on January 17.

Raisi himself became president with a sixth-grade education and no background in leadership positions. In reality, Raisi is a crime against humanity, with the blood of over 30,000 political prisoners on his hands. During the horrific 1988 genocide in Iran, he was a member of the so-called “death committees” that sent thousands of innocent prisoners to the gallows for fighting for freedom and democracy. For the ruling kleptocracy in Iran, involvement in crimes against humanity and complete allegiance to the Supreme Leader rank above all other criteria, including competence.

In another case, Alireza Zakani, the current mayor of Tehran, appointed his son-in-law Hossain Heydari as his special adviser. However, due to the strong public condemnation, he was forced to back down from the decision.

The Iranian Resistance, in an exclusive report on the regime’s internet censorship law, revealed how Zakani’s daughter and husband will benefit significantly from the regime’s plan to ban international social media platforms from Iran.

“By driving international social media platforms out of Iran, companies like Sharif Amid Computer Company will take over the market. This company is run by Maryam Zakani, daughter of Tehran’s Mayor Alireza Zakani, and her husband Hossain Heydari. Heydari also works at Arsh Ideographer Company, another application development company whose most prominent application is Rubika,” the report said.

“On behalf of the Minister of Science, Mohammad Hadi Zahedi, the son of former Minister of Science and current Member of Parliament Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, has been appointed Director-General for Statistics, Information Technology and Cyberspace Security at the Ministry of Science,” the state-run Mehr news agency reported Jan. 11.

Parviz Fattah, the head of the Mostazafan Foundation, appointed Heshmatollah Ghanbari, a key propagandist for the regime’s Radio and Television Organization (IRIB), to head the Parsian Tourism and Recreation Centers Holding. Ghanbari was also Deputy Director of Resource Development.

“Heshmatollah Ghanbari was appointed managing director of a tourism holding company without having a day’s managerial experience. We see appointments like this all over the country,” the state-run daily Aftab-e Yazd confirmed on January 12.

Abdul Ali Asgari, the former head of state television and radio and a close associate of Khamenei, was installed as CEO of the country’s largest petrochemical company. The appointment sparked an uproar even within the regime itself.

“Those who appointed Asgari director of radio and television through a hidden lobby and tried to keep the most incompetent director of radio and television have now brought him to Persian Gulf Petrochemical Holding. I’m sure [Khamenei] has a hard time with it,” admitted Hamid Rasaei, a former MP from Khamenei’s faction.

The state-run Dideban website reported on January 11 that Pir Hossein Kolivand, the head of the regime’s Red Crescent Society, had appointed an IRGC commander, Yaghoub Soleimani, as Iran’s Red Crescent Secretary-General. Raisi appointed Kolivand himself in November 2021.

“Yaghoub Soleimani replaces Mohammad Hassan Qousian Moghaddam, although he has no Red Crescent-related experience on his record,” confirmed Dideban.

Nepotism is not limited to the regime’s ruling faction. The regime’s self-proclaimed “reformist” President Hassan Rouhani, for example, had appointed his son-in-law to head the Iranian geological survey. Rouhani had also appointed his brother as his “special adviser”. The brother, Hossein Fereydoon, was later arrested by the rival faction but now enjoys a comfortable life in prison and vacations frequently. Meanwhile, many Iranian political prisoners are deprived of basic medical care and lose their lives as a result.

“The gentlemen of both factions talk about competence and meritocracy before the elections, but when in power they replace competence with family connections,” wrote the state-run daily Jomhouri-e Eslami in November 2021.

The list of top positions held by woefully incompetent people is truly endless, and the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

What else can one expect from a regime that has a corrupt and incompetent murderous “Supreme Leader” like Khamenei, who controls a vast financial empire worth at least $95 billion (9 years ago), according to a 2013 Reuters report?

While most Iranians cannot even earn a decent living and are deprived of basic necessities like bread while forced to spend the night on buses or on empty tombs, the ruling kleptocracy continues to plunder public funds. Since its inception, the mullahs’ regime has been firmly based on systematic corruption and bewildering nepotism.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the regime’s current parliamentary speaker, acknowledged in 2016 that “only 4% of society” lead a decent life in Iran. They are regime officials and their families.

Meanwhile, more and more Iranians are being forced to go to Iraq to sell their kidneys, said Hossein Biglari, head of a kidney care facility in Kermanshah. “Many people go to Tehran to sell their kidneys because brokers there help them get higher prices. But regulations prohibit buying an organ from people who don’t live in the same city,” Biglari said Jan. 15.

Khamenei, who now sits on the throne thanks to the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, is fully aware that resorting to nepotism to help him navigate multiple crises at home and abroad is futile. But the mullahs’ 43 years of authoritarian rule have taught him that fear serves him more than respect. That he installed a literally illiterate IRGC soldier, Ebrahim Raisi, in the presidency is a perfect sign of his total disregard for a merit-based system of government.

The supreme leader wants to make sure his regime survives. But blinded by his lust for power, like every dictator like the Shah, he commits the greatest mistake himself; He underestimated the determination of the Iranian people to overthrow their regime.


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