A leaked audio recording in which two former senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) discuss corruption that helps fund the powerful force and its secretive military operations abroad has shed light on infighting and graft that extends to the hierarchy of the country’s clerical regime.

The implication in the recording, published in a wide-ranging exposé by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on February 11, that some of the country’s most powerful decision-makers were aware of or involved in corrupt practices has prompted a furious reaction in Tehran, including from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Amid the outcry that erupted following the publication of the audio file, state bodies and top officials have gone on the defensive with fierce denials of wrongdoing, claims that the recording proves the regime’s commitment to fighting corruption, and accusations that Radio Farda — a U.S. congressionally funded media outlet banned in Iran — is engaging in “psychological warfare” intended to destroy the IRGC.

In the audio, former IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and his deputy for construction and economic affairs, Sadegh Zolghadrnia, can be heard discussing corruption investigations within the IRGC and Tehran’s municipality under then-Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

The precise date of the recording obtained by Radio Farda from a confidential source in Iran is not known, but the conversation appears to have taken place amid a years-long corruption investigation that first emerged in 2017 and resulted in a top IRGC commander and a Tehran deputy mayor being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in March 2021.

While the prison sentences handed down by the Supreme Court were reported in Iranian state media, the details of the corruption charges were not. The leaked recording fills in some of the blanks, and indicates that high-ranking regime members and one of the Islamic republic’s most heralded military commanders were at the least well aware of the particulars.

Murky Case Behind The Audio

That corruption case involved entities including Yas Holding, a subsidiary of the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation, one of the many opaque, state-funded trusts in Iran that the military branch employs to exert significant influence on the domestic economy.

The foundations are widely believed to be used to funnel revenue to groups that support the regime, including mercenaries working closely with the IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for military operations abroad.

Yas Holding was a development company reportedly set up to support Quds Force activities in Syria. It is believed to have been dissolved in February 2018, and some of its managers were sentenced to prison in the 2021 Supreme Court ruling for complicity in fraud, money laundering, and illegal seizure of funds.

Among those sentenced in the case was former IRGC member Mahmud Seif, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and former Qalibaf deputy Issa Sharifi, who was fined and handed a 20-year prison sentence.

The topics of the discussion between Jafari and Zolghadrnia suggests it came before Jafari was replaced as head of the IRGC in 2019 and before Qalibaf, who once commanded the IRGC’s air force and served as Tehran mayor from 2005 to 2017, rose to become speaker of Iran’s parliament in 2020.

Another prominent figure whose name features in the discussion is Qasem Soleimani, the then-head of the Quds Force, which under his command was engaged in military operations and support for militias in Syria, among other countries.

Soleimani was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in 2020, and has been heavily promoted by the Islamic regime as a martyr and national hero.

Corruption For Discussion

In the audio file, Zolghadrnia says that Qalibaf — who faced accusations of financial corruption during his mayoral tenure — had come to him offering to sign a phony contract with the IRGC in an attempt to cover up an 80 trillion-rial (about $2 billion at the time) shortfall discovered during an audit of the Cooperative Foundation.

Zolghadrnia can be heard telling Jafari that Qalibaf had met him outside a mosque near their homes and asked him to sign the document. “He said, ‘Sign this.’ I said, ‘This is against the law, it will be to my detriment as well as to your detriment, and it will harm Jafari. I am not signing it,'” Zolghadrnia says.

Later in the meeting, Zolghadrnia suggests that Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC’s feared intelligence branch, had lobbied in favor of Qalibaf and that he was “very upset” that things had not gone his way. Zolghadrnia also says that Jamal Aberoumand, a deputy to Qalibaf who also served on the board of the Cooperative Foundation, had asked him to remove some passages from an audit regarding the missing funds in keeping with what Aberoumand allegedly claimed was an order by the supreme leader.

“He [Aberoumand] said: ‘I agree with all of it. But there was some analysis that [Khamenei] had said that the goal was to help the Quds Force — give 90 percent to Quds, 10 percent to the IRGC — it was his [Khamenei’s] order, and he said take it out.'”

For his part, Jafari reveals in the conversation that Quds Force commander Soleimani was “upset” about the action against the IRGC-affiliated Yas Holding, and had complained about it to to the supreme leader, who has final say in virtually all matters in the Islamic republic. “He [Soleimani] was upset with your and the IRGC intelligence branch’s treatment of [Yas Holding],” Jafari tells Zolghadrnia. “He [Soleimani] said he went to [Khamenei].”

In other parts of their conversation, Jafari and Zolghadrnia suggest that current Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani got in an argument over the missing funds during an unspecified meeting, discuss Quds Force debts to the Cooperative Foundation, and express glee that “Soleimani has just realized what happened to him.”

IRGC Acknowledges ‘Violation’

The IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency on February 13 confirmed the authenticity of the audio recording, claiming that it first emerged two years ago but was recently “republished more widely.” The news agency does not mention Radio Farda’s role in publishing and disseminating the recording.

The following day, IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif acknowledged that “mismanagement” and a “violation” had taken place in a company affiliated with the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation and that the judiciary had intervened. He said the violators were currently serving their sentences and that the media had covered the issue.

Sharif also said that former Quds Force commander Soleimani had no role in the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation.

Separately, Fars reported on February 14 that Yas Holding had not been fully successful in achieving its goal of supporting the activities of the so-called Resistance Front — a term used by Iranian officials and media to refer to an anti-Israel alliance including Iran, Lebanese Hizballah, Syria, and Palestinian groups — because it was outside the direct oversight of the IRGC and Tehran’s municipality.

Fars claimed that as soon as the IRGC commanders became suspicious of Yas’s activities, they interfered by dissolving the company and sending the violators, including Seif and Sharifi, both former IRGC commanders, to military court.

The audio file of the meeting between Jafari and his deputy was reportedly posted on a Telegram channel in January 2019, but it apparently went unnoticed until Radio Farda received the 50-minute file from a source inside the country and republished it on its website.

In a public address on February 17, Supreme Leader Khamenei appeared to condemn the release of the audio file, without naming Radio Farda directly. He said “enemies” were spending billions of dollars to create divisions between Iran’s people and the clerical establishment by exerting economic pressure and spreading lies and allegations against the pillars of the Islamic Revolution.

“They raise accusations against centers that are influential in the progress of the revolution. One day it’s the parliament, one day it’s the Guardians Council, one day it’s the IRGC. Today they slander the IRGC, they throw mud, including at a great martyr like Soleimani,” Khamenei said, according to a text of his speech posted on his website.

Leaks And Infighting

U.S.-based opposition activist Mohsen Sazegara, who helped found the IRGC, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the audio file confirmed previous reports and allegations about corruption within the IRGC, which has in recent years become a major player in Iran’s economy as affiliated companies have rapidly expanded into key sectors such as telecommunications and oil and gas.

“It is significant that then-IRGC commander Jafari is speaking in the audio file,” Sazegara said. “Also, the matters discussed are in line with other information from other sources about corruption in the IRGC, embezzlement, mafia networks, and so on.”

Sazegara also said the recent leaks highlighted infighting among factions within the clerical establishment, while adding that the leaks may have come from figures within the establishment who have realized that “they’re serving a corrupt and inhuman regime.”

“Therefore, Khamenei is forced to constantly shrink the pyramid of power to make sure of its loyalty,” Sazegara said.

There has been a spate of unprecedented leaks from within the Islamic republic in recent years amid speculation about factional infighting and the role of Iran’s internal enemies.

In recent months, a self-described group calling itself Edalat-e Ali (Ali’s Justice) has leaked confidential documents to Persian-language media outside the country, including to Radio Farda, highlighting abuse of prisoners as well as the clerical establishment’s concern over rising discontent in the country.

Last year, leaked audio of complaints made by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the IRGC’s interference in foreign policy caused a stir in the country. “I don’t think this file will result in cleansing within the establishment,” Sazegara suggested. “Things are way worse than that, the mafia bands are stronger than this, they won’t go away with [only] a file.”

Calls For Accountability

Following Radio Farda’s publication of the discussion between Jafari and his deputy, scores of citizens have taken to social media to comment using the hashtag #audio_file in Persian (#فایل_صوتی).

Some said that they’re in fact not surprised by the alleged corruption among senior officials, while others noted that resources that were stolen could have improved the lives of millions of Iranians.

“In the year when they took [80 trillion rials], there were 30,000 worn-out and destroyed schools. All these schools could have been rebuilt with [50 trillion rials] so that the children of this country could study under a safe roof,” Iranian entrepreneur Pedram Soltani said on Twitter on February 14 in reaction to the revelations.

“It is important [to know] how and for what purpose the audio file of Jafari and his former IRGC economic deputy has been released. But the reaction of Islamic republic officials is more important,” journalist Milad Alavi wrote on Twitter. “Either you deal with the accusations against Qalibaf…or you have officially confessed to systematic corruption.”

Conservative politicians, meanwhile, have attempted to downplay the significance of the recording.

They include lawmaker Mahmud Abbaszadeh, a member of the parliament’s National Security Committee, who said on February 14 that he had listened to the audio file several times and concluded that “it’s nothing special.”

Abbaszadeh said that the audio would be discussed in his committee, but also described the fact that it had been leaked as the result of “infiltration” within the system. “The ill-wishers did not get what they wanted, to use it as an excuse to destroy the IRGC,” he was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ILNA news agency. “The enemy cannot damage the popularity of the IRGC with this psychological war.”

Paris-based Iranian political analyst Reza Alijani told Radio Farda that, in the eyes of the public, the leaked audio recording confirms popular belief that the majority of the Islamic republic’s leaders are corrupt. “These behind-the-scenes [revelations] demonstrate that the gaps [within the establishment] are more serious than previously thought,” Alijani said.

The audio file comes amid widespread public frustration over the poor state of Iran’s economy caused by crippling U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement. Anger has also been directed at the IRGC for its shooting down of a passenger jet over Tehran in 2020 that killed all 176 onboard.

Source » rferl