The deadly novel coronavirus outbreak in Iran has exposed a long-suspected attribute of an outspoken Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) General and former mayor of Tehran, who has is set to preside over the newly elected parliament on May 28.
Circulating a commercial video on his Telegram Channel, IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (Ghalibaf) has called upon people to deposit money in a little-known institution's bank account and help it contain the deadly virus.
The institution is named after the eighth Shiite Imam, Ali ibn Musa al-Reza, buried in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad. The "Imam Reza Headquarters," claims that it manufactures protective masks in fifty workshops across Iran, and it has also promised unnamed state-own entities to produce twenty million masks for free distribution among the poverty-stricken people in Iran.
The "headquarters" is officially registered as the Mehr al-Reza Jihadi Foundation.
The shady outfit's website maintains that it was established in a popular, spontaneous move in 2013 to assist "deprived people" in cultural and social fields.
Nevertheless, the website does not provide the foundation's articles of association, the names of people on its board of directors nor the sources of its income.
Digging further, one finds out that the foundation was officially registered in 2016. Therefore, it is not clear how the unregistered and unlicensed entity operated and even won government contracts between 2013 and 2016.
The IRGC-affiliated daily, Javan, reported on August 31, 2015, that the headquarters had completed 1,200 construction projects and deployed 3,700 staff in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran,
Still digging further, one finds out that a mid-ranking cleric, Gholam Reza Qassemian, is named as the chairman of the foundation's board of directors.
Widely known as Qalibaf's “nightingale”, Qassemian is praised for his singing video clips. He is also the manager of Meshkat Shi'ite seminary.
Qalibaf’s name has been tied to huge corruption scandals at the Tehran municipality, during his tenure as mayor. When in 2017, a new city council was elected, news about billions of dollars having disappeared from the city’s coffers were revealed. But Qalibaf’s hardliner allies mercilessly attacked the new mayor and his aides who were disclosing episodes of his corruption.
Qassemian's close relationship with Qalibaf, during the latter's control over the Tehran municipality (2005-2017) helped the "headquarters" obtain lucrative contracts, including the management of 23 centers for drug rehabilitation in 2017 across Tehran.
The centers were entrusted to Qassemian's foundation for three years, under unknown conditions.
According to pro-reform daily Sharq's report on September 16, 2019, every unit of the 23 drug rehabilitation centers is valued between seventy billion to 100 billion rials (approximately $ 1.7 million to $2.4 million).
Although the foundation denies its connection to the rehab centers, the work progress reports of the centers are published by the foundation.
The foundation’s social media accounts reveal it was also involved in the lucrative business of providing service to Iranian pilgrims who annually travel to the city of Karbala, in Iraq. As a matter of fact, Qalibaf twisted the arms of all district mayors in Tehran to contribute to the foundation for providing service to pilgrims, according to a member of Tehran city council.
This was all happening while the foundation was still not registered and its is not clear how it could have financial dealing and bank accounts.
In a nutshell, the Mehr al-Reza Jihadi Foundation is a carbon copy of hundreds of other “charitable” entities in Iran that make millions, thanks to their connections with a prominent political, military or religious figure.
These entities are never transparent, are always under the protection of a powerful figure, do not issue any financial reports and can suddenly set up branches in all parts of the country.
Supported by a political heavyweight, every one of these shady foundations makes millions and returns the favor during elections.
They also always become visibly active during natural disasters and other emergencies such as the coronavirus crisis, with appeals to citizens and businesses to collect money, without any transparency.
The IRGC brigadier General, former Police Chief (2000-2005) and Tehran Mayor (2005-2017), Qalibaf won 1,265,000 votes, the highest in Tehran, in the February 2020 parliamentary elections.
Many analysts believe that although mired in corruption, the 58-year-old Qalibaf might become the next speaker of parliament on May 28.
The Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose grip on power is being challenged by mounting pressures from Washington and by growing discontent at home, is seen by analysts as counting on security hawks like Qalibaf to form a loyal and obedient parliament.