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Two Top Clerics In Iran Allegedly Involved In 'Land Grab' Scandal

Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, a conservative cleric and former head of Iranian Judiciary Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani. Undated

A right-wing student group in Iran has called on the country's new Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi (Raeisi) to indict his predecessor and another senior politician for being involved in a "land grab" case in the lavish Lavasan area north of Tehran.

The group has asked the Judiciary to hand Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani and former Parliament Speaker and ex-Chief Inspector of Khamenei's office, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, maximum sentence in case they are convicted.

This adds yet another twist to a host of corruption disclosures and trials in recent months, after decades of public outcry about powerful people misusing their positions in the Islamic Republic establishment.

The area in question, some 1,000,000 square meters, is a gated community nicknamed Beverly Hills of Iran where 62 luxury residential complexes have been built on the slopes overlooking Lake Latian.

It is not clear if the lands were all private property or partly owned by religious endowments. But at least some of the land belonged to Nateq Nouri's relatives and the zoning was changed from "farmland" to "residential", in what is seen as intervention by the two powerful ayatollahs.

A view of Lavasan, a resort region north of the capital, Tehran, with many luxury residences. Undated
A view of Lavasan, a resort region north of the capital, Tehran, with many luxury residences. Undated

The project started in 2003 but was soon stopped due to opposition by local authorities and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who was concerned about water pollution in the lake, which partly supplies Tehran's drinking water.

Amoli Larijani later authorized construction in the area as Judiciary Chief earlier this decade, and Nateq Nouri told local authorities not to protest the decision. However, during the past year following intervention by a Khamenei top aide several local officials were arrested.

A documentary video on Iran-based Internet TV channel Ava Net TV, recently disclosed the case and claimed that Nateq Nouri is a relative of the owners of the project.

The student group, the Justice Seekers, which has called for legal action against the two top clerics, is known for supporting former ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has never concealed his dislike of Amoli Larijani and Nateq Nouri and has complained against their disregard for laws in letters to Khamenei during the past two years.

In recent days, investigative journalists Yashar Soltani, and conservative filmmaker Milad Goudarzi have "amplified" the case on social media. Goudarzi told the state TV's Tehran Channel that the township is still being developed "in spite of clear opposition expressed by Khamenei." The state TV has identified Goudarzi as the editor-in-chief of the Internet-based Ava Net TV.

In his documentary, Goudarzi accuses the two top clerics of "playing with the prestige of the Islamic Republic," and "circumventing the Supreme Leader's order."

Goudarzi also accused the local municipality of agreeing to convert farmlands into a residential area after the owners ceded half of the lands in dispute to the municipality free of charge.

The documentary says the construction project continued because Amoli-Larijani and Nateq Nouri used their "influence."

In recent days, the media reported that the heads of the Natural Endowments Organizations of two local areas were arrested for "financial corruption" and "land-grabbing" and the head of the Intelligence Department of Lavasan was removed from his post because of his involvement in the case.

Meanwhile, a local news website, Asr-e Lavasan, asked why the Friday Prayer Leader of Lavasan remained silent about the case during the past four years although he knew about it.

A wave of protests against Amoli Larijani started on Twitter after the case was disclosed. Pro-Ahmadinejad users such as "Aminolraya" have called on the new Judiciary Chief to start investigating the case.

Well-known journalist Sadra Mohaqeq wrote that the residential areas have been developed in spite of opposition by the Environmental Agency, Ministry of Energy, the High Council of Urban Development and other organizations, because Amoli Larijani supported the project.

Twitter User Vahid Ashtari has called for the "open trial" of the clerics who have used their influence to further the project.

Vahid Heroabadi, a cleric, expressed hope that Amoli Larijani would be removed from all of his posts if convicted.

A very well-known hardline influencer on Twitter, Zahra Tabbakhi, characterized the case as "character assassination" and wrote "no official has remained immune" to this kind of assassination. However, she has warned that "too many news reports about embezzlement and corruption within only two months could lead to a public mutiny."

Under the pressure of economic crisis, the Islamic Republic has launched a campaign against corruption and market speculation, putting on trial dozens of former officials and businessmen.

In such an atmosphere, various political factions start mutual accusations and those who have the opportunity, initiate indictments against opponents.

The interesting question is why Khamenei’s office permits the disclosure of so many corruption cases. One answer might be the regime’s quest to show the public that it is vigilant, trying to root out “economic disruptors” in the midst of a serious economic crisis.