By Rohollah Faghihi
March 8, 2019
The phenomenon of “dirty” or suspicious money appears to have increasingly found a new haven: Iran’s cinema and TV production industry.
In 2015, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli spoke of an issue that had existed for a long time but was rarely confirmed: “dirty money.” The term has since come to be used in Iran to refer to money laundering or financing with unclear sources.
Mentioning the “large amount of money” in the Iranian economy, Rahmani Fazli said in 2015, “A portion of this [type] of money has entered politics and has been used by individuals in elections etc.” This issue has also been reiterated by Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani. “When there are drugs, there is dirty money too. … There is money laundering going on somewhere,” Rouhani said last year.
Now, “dirty money” appears to have found a new place to operate — Iran’s cinema and TV production industry, which has been flourishing in the past decade, with movies and series setting records in attracting audiences and income.
The story began when notorious billionaire Babak Zanjani brought his cash windfall from sanctions-busting to the cinema. Upon the imposition of US sanctions during the second term (2009-2013) of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government had to resort to third parties to do banking transactions and receive oil export proceeds. Zanjani was one of these figures; he made extraordinary amount of money in a short time and didn’t return a considerable amount of the Iranian Oil Ministry’s money.
Hearing the whispers about a possible deal with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, he entered the cinema industry in 2013, establishing Sourinet Film and producing three movies. He, however, was soon arrested, and sentenced to death for financial crimes and corruption.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the Shahrzad TV series directed by celebrated director Hassan Fathi gained popularity. After a while, what made people more curious were the names of its producers: Mohammad Emami and Mohammad-Hadi Razavi. Razavi is the wealthy son-in-law of Rouhani’s minister of cooperatives, labor and social welfare, Mohammad Shariatmadari, who is also accused of corruption. Razavi left the project concurrently with the launch of the “No to Shahrzad” campaign, which began in late 2016 after reports were leaked to media about the detention of Emami owing to his role in an embezzlement case. On Jan. 28, the judiciary referred to Emami as a “corrupted figure.”
Moreover, on Jan. 21, the judiciary announced that a large amount of the money related to the massive embezzlement case engulfing Bank Sarmayeh has been transferred out of the country in the name of “bypassing sanctions,” and that a portion of it has been spent on producing movies and series.
“Dirty money” in Iranian cinema has raised concerns among veteran artists. In an open letter to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in October, Manijeh Hekmat, a prominent producer and director, criticized the current situation of Iranian cinema given the presence of “dirty money gangs.”
More clear and direct criticism came from one of the most popular actresses of Iranian cinema, Fatemeh Motamedaria. “The problem is the type of money and individuals who are entering cinema. … [These are] people who mostly do not belong to this profession and have no cultural concerns, and have come to drag down everything to their level,” Motamedaria said Jan. 5.
Expressing her disapproval over the “dirty money” in the industry aimed at “changing the path of Iranian cinema,” Motamedaria said such investments have negatively affected Iranian film, bringing up the “fake and third-rate culture and relations of Hollywood-like star-making and pretentious actions such as [rolling out] the red carpet,” thereby diminishing the popularity of artists among the public.
Referring to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the veteran actress said, “It is important to know what should be monitored. Should you control the word-for-word of the scripts and the [attire of] actresses, or should you become sensitive to the source and purpose and the result of the billions [of rials] entering cinema?”
However, such harsh words by artists haven’t borne fruit as more and more unknown producers are entering the cinema industry. For example, Mohammad-Sadegh Ranjkeshan, a wealthy tourism activist, produced at least eight movies in one year and had a few movies in this year’s flagship Fajr Film Festival, raising questions about the source of his money.
In response to a question about dirty money in the cinema industry, Ebrahim Daroughezadeh, the secretary of the state-backed Fajr Film Festival, said Jan. 24, “One of the policies of the Cinema Organization [run by the Ministry of Culture] is to encourage private investment in cinema. The private investment will help cinema.” He added, “The [sources] of the investments are important for us … but we aren’t the ones in charge of investigating [possible] financial violations of investors.”
Moreover, member of parliament Tayyebeh Siavoshi, a member of the legislature’s cultural commission, said Feb. 14 that the parliament last year passed anti-money laundering legislation and that it is the judiciary’s duty to pursue the issue of dirty money in the entertainment industry.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 12, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi officially confirmed money laundering in Iranian cinema and television production, referring to the producer of the “Shahrzad” TV series, Emami, as an example. In the meantime, reports about the prosecutor general investigating money laundering in the Iranian entertainment industry has been welcomed by a group of producers. In a statement Feb. 18, the Association of Independent Producers of Iranian Cinema said that “dirty money … has damaged the balance of the market.”
As such, while flourishing, Iranian cinema is clearly struggling to survive the phenomenon of “dirty money.” As industry icons have now pinned their hopes on the judiciary to counter the money-laundering activities, one can only wait and see whether the judicial branch will begin to address to address the footprint of corrupt investors.