Just when it seemed like the long-suffering citizens of Iran might have caught a break with the West’s decision to lift economic sanctions in January 2016, the hardline government has shown it’s still very much in control.
It might not have seemed it at the time, but despite his hardline, man-of-the-people image, Iran’s former leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was something of a secret capitalist. From the outside looking in, Ahmadinejad was as against the West and all it stood for as his predecessors, spouting vitriol toward the US, Europe and particular Israel at every opportunity. However what wasn’t apparent was that in the spirit of the late Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Ahmadinejad was quite happy to let his closest chosen few sell off Iranian oil and gold to the highest bidder – and get rich off the proceeds, despite his country enduring years of the most economically sapping of sanctions imposed by the West while he was in power.
A Kuwaiti newspaper recently reported that 60-year old Ahmadinejad, who was Iran’s president from 2005-2013, has a personal fortune well in excess of $100 million, despite never having had any form of career in business. The article speculated that Ahmadinejad’s haul was just the tip of the iceberg, and that some $16 billion had been accumulated Â through asset sales during his time in office, and it was being held in the offshore accounts of some 66 senior Iranian government officials and members of Ahmadinejad’s extended family.
Such news will only fan the flames of public resentment in Iranian society toward the extravagantly wealthy “Rich 1%” who control 75% of the country’s assets.
The Tragedy That Became A Scandal
In April 2016, a Porsche Boxster driven by a 20-year old female crashed into a tree at 120 mph on Tehran’s Shariati Street, instantly killing the driver and the passenger sitting next to her. What began as a tragedy quickly developed into a major scandal when it was discovered that the passenger was in fact the car’s owner, 21-year old Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi, son of a prominent Iranian ayatollah.
The scandal deepened when it was revealed that at the time of the crash Mr Rabbani-Shirazi was engaged to another woman, which meant that he was in breach of Iran’s stringent religious laws on gender segregation between unrelated men and women. The dead man’s Instagram account revealed that he and his wealthy friends had been living a hedonistic, Western-style existence, completely out of step with Iran’s national Islamic code, and triggered a wave of resentment among the nation’s vast working class.
The Rich Kids Of Tehran
Rabbani-Shirazi “˜s account was not dissimilar to the notorious Instagram page labelled The Rich Kids of Tehran, RKOT or @TheRichKidsOfTehran, which displays images of young Iranians from wealthy families enjoying themselves, looking their best, having parties, going skiing, visiting the beach, in short, doing the kind of things well behaved young people the world-over like to do. Unlike a million other Instagram of Facebook accounts, there are no images of alcohol-fueled decadence, depravity and debauchery so prevalent in Western society, and yet this account has drawn derision from both the government and large sections of the public. Why? Because Iran has traditionally been a strict Muslim country, and such displays – however tame – are considered blasphemous.
In what seems to be the government punishing the rich elite for their Western-style decadence, the government has begun seizing the luxury cars of the wealthy, literally confiscating hundreds of Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Porsches (Porsche sells more cars in Tehran than any other Middle-Eastern city.) According to the ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency), in one incident alone back in May (2016), police raided one of Tehran’s more affluent neighborhoods and confiscated 47 luxury cars in a seven-hour period, claiming they were “causing problems and danger.”
It’s not the first time that the current government has confiscated the cars of its citizens; in 2015 there were some 40,000 incidents of women being fined or having their cars impounded for “not wearing the hijab properly.”
Could There Be Another Islamic Revolution?
In 1979, Iran was torn apart by the Islamic Revolution, which led to the overthrow and exile of the Shah and the installment of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s leader. While the Shah had long been a friend to Western leaders and Iran had been a much-needed ally in the Middle East, all of that would change in the space of a few months. The Shah would die the following year due to health issues while exiled in Egypt, while much of country’s wealthy elite would escape with their vast fortunes to the US.
For decades Iran had nothing comparable to the Shah and his cronies for the country’s impoverished masses could fixate on – until now. Iran has some 32,000 “high net-worth individuals”, including 65 who are worth over $100m and four billionaires. Many of these people are already looking toward the West and investing in property in London and the other major European cities.
Last July, Iran was allowed to proceed with its nuclear energy program, and in January of 2016, the West agree to lift economic sanctions against the country, freeing some $70 billion of Iranian assets. However, while in theory the country is best placed to finally free itself from its political and religious shackles and take its place as a genuine world power, in reality Iran is always just one ill-advised threat against Israel away from falling foul of the West once more. Worryingly for them, if Donald Trump and the Republican party gain the US presidency, January’s deal could yet be scuppered. If that were to happen, the sense of unrest in the country would skyrocket, and the resentment toward Iran’s wealthy 1% would deepen to the point of intolerance. While a full scale Islamic revolution would be unlikely as Iran is already led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it’s not hard to imagine the rich being imprisoned (or worse) and their fortunes absorbed into the state.
If you are a wealthy Iranian who is concerned about yours and your family’s future, it might be time to consider obtaining second citizenship and a new passport through a Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program. CBI is the increasingly popular and completely legal practice of making a specific financial investment into a country (normally the purchase of real estate) and in return receiving that country’s citizenship and passport. Many EU countries have CBI programs, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Malta and Portugal. It should be noted than any EU passport grants the holder the right to live and work in any European Union country without restrictions nor time limitations.
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