A video leaked from a meeting of the COVID-19 Control Task Force highlighted the power and influence of the economic conglomerate that operates under the aegis of the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In the video President Hassan Rouhani tells state TV Chief Ali Asgari to air free of charge advertising for online retailers to encourage Iranians to stay home and do their shopping online.
The Chief of state TV, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Organization (IRIB), tells Rouhani that if the IRIB advertises for those companies, TOSKA will sue the state TV. TOSKA is the Persian acronym for a company registered as "Developing Iranian Businesses."
Reactions to the video clip on social media included a post by former Vice-President Abdollah Ramezanzadeh who asked: "Who are those powerful people who run TOSKA and why the IRIB chief is defending it so elaborately at the COVID-19 Control Task Force meeting in front of the President and thousands of viewers?"
A Powerful cobweb
TOSKA was registered in Iran in September 2017. Its main shareholders include three other companies namely Naqsh Aval Keyfiat, Mobile Communication Co, and Tose'eh Nour Dena Investment company. These are part of a long chain of companies whose roots reach to Tadbir Holding, the financial wing of Khamenei's office's most important economic institution: The Headquarters To Implement Imam Khomeyni's Decree.
In other words, Toska is linked to Khamenei's office via four links. Most of these interconnected companies are each other's shareholders and ae intertwined like a cobweb.
The network is so powerful that the IRIB chief, himself appointed by Khamenei is utterly afraid of them, as the video shows.
In September 2017, the state TV issued a tender bid to outsource its advertising business as its main source of income that provides astronomical financial resources for the organization. A commercial entity named Yas Holing, which turned out to be linked to the IRGC Intelligence Organization won the tender and signed a contract with the IRIB which was reportedly worth 30 trillion rials [roughly $707 million] at the official rate of exchange.
The head of IRIB at the time, Mohammad Sarafraz who was against the deal had to resign subsequently. However, as Yas Holding became bogged down in a major financial corruption case, the tender was given to TOSKA, a company that was registered only ten days before winning this contract. TOSKA was an affiliate of the cell phone company Hamrah Avval whose shares were transferred to the Headquarters To Implement Imam Khomeyni's Decree as part of Khamenei's office, after the financial corruption case linked to the IRGC Intelligence organization became known to the public.
Since then, Iran's Minister of Communication Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has repeatedly protested against the contract between the state TV IRIB and TOSKA. Meanwhile, some lawmakers also wanted to initiate an investigation into TOSKA'a financial transactions, but the parliament presidium never allowed the move to be started.
TOSKA soon developed a start-up and an application named Rubika which also belongs to Khamenei's office. It was soon turned into IRIB's tool to run the biggest lotteries in Iran, a country where gambling is illegal.
Criticizing the burgeoning lottery business, many people and some media outlets in Iran nicknamed the state TV as the IRIB casino. Subsequently Khamenei warned against gambling on TV, but nevertheless, it continued in a different format as the state TV could not simply forget about the hefty income.
Khabar Online website estimated the income as 40 trillion rials per annum although there are no accurate official figures about the venture. This equals around $950 million based on the official exchange rate.
According to a statement issued in March 2018 TOSKA sponsors 79 programs on the Iranian state TV with a huge investment which makes it effectively IRIB's most important and most prolific producer.
Meanwhile, TOSKA is accused of using its vast influence to fire a popular broadcaster, Adel Ferdowsipur, who was against gambling on TV. It has also produced a couple of movies that propagate Iranian harliners' party line. TOSKA is also active in developing Iranian social networking applications.
It appears that Khamenei's office has been using the IRIB not simply as a broadcaster. It is also a tool to acquire and distribute money via its monopoly which enables the office to get rid of its commercial rivals.
According to a Reuter report in 2014, the Headquarters To Implement Imam Khomeyni's Decree, now part of Khamenei's office had $93 billion in assets at its disposal. It is now further developed into a treasury for Khamenei and controls his business interests.
Among other things, the headquarters is now also known as the Sultan of Masks as it has been using the outbreak of COVID-19 as an opportunity for making more money by importing and producing protective masks.
The headquarters managers include many of former President Ahmadinejad's aides including Ali Nikzad, Mehrdad Bazrpash and Kaveh Eshtehardi.