August 17, 2019
The mysterious absence of the prime suspect in a major case of alleged corruption related to the Central Bank of Iran, as well as other evidence, have given rise to the possibility that the country’s Intelligence Ministry is involved in the case.
Iranian media have been reporting during the past two days that the prime suspect in a case involving $160 million and €20 million, Salar Aqakhani (Aghakhani), and three of his associatess have left Iran.
Aqakhani’s lawyer told the press in Tehran that he has not fled, and that he is “cooperating with certain units,” most likely in the country’s notorious intelligence agencies.
On Wednesday, Sharq newspaper wrote that Aqakhani left Iran for Najaf in Iraq in late March after selling all of his assets in Iran.
Aqakhani was absent in the first court session that investigated the case in October. Only five of the nine suspects were present in the session. The court held to more sessions behind closed doors.
Salar Aqakhani, born in 1991, and one of the youngest Iranians ever implicated in a major corruption case, has been active in the forex market during the past four years via his connections at the Central bank.
He was also implicated in a previous corruption case in 2017 which led to the execution of one of the suspects in that case.
Despite all this, Aqakhani is an illusive individual, to the degree that Iranian journalists cannot even find a verified photo of him.
The Story Behind the Mystery
In autumn 2017, the Central Bank poured around $160 million and €20 million in the market in collaboration with the Intelligence Ministry in order to control the forex market that had gone wild as a result of likely U.S. sanctions.
The injection of hard currency into the market was done through 10 money changers, but Salar Aqakhani, who was then introduced as the agent of IRGC’s Bank Ansar, got the lion’s share and received $140 million from the Central Bank to inject into the market.
The IRGC-linked bank later denied any link to Aqakhani, but Sharq newspaper has interviewed “informed sources” who have established the link between Aqakhani and the IRGC bank.
The injection of fresh dollars into the market at that point did not save Iran’s ailing currency from devaluation. However, in March 2018 Aqakhani and several others were jailed for mishandling funds, but he was soon released on bail as the Central Bank certified that his activities in the forex market were lawful.
Later, in August 2018, Aqakhani was arrested once again, this time along with Ahmad Araqchi, a deputy governor of the Central Bank and a relative of Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi (Araghchi).
In March 2019, Aqakhani was released on a hefty bail. That was when rumors said he has fled the country.
Aqakhani is officially charged with involvement in smuggling $159.800 million and more than €20 million. However, the nature of his “crime” is not quite clear. The Prosecutor’s representative has said he returned the equivalent of the foreign currency he had received from the Central Bank.
So, if he did not pocket the hard currency, then what did he smuggle?
He is also charged with bribing unknown people, but it is not clear who he has bribed.
One possibility is that Aqakhani and his associates did not sell the hard currency when they received but waited for the dollar to rise and then made an extra personal profit. But that version is not included in the official charges.
Two other individuals implicated in Aqakhani’s case, lend a political dimension to the case. They are Ahmad Araqchi, and Meysam Khodaei, who is an adviser to Mohammad Nahavandian, President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy for economic affairs.
All these ambiguities also open the door to suspicions that the motivation behind bringing charges by hardliner judicial officials was to tarnish the image of Rouhani, the Central Bank and the foreign ministry’s Abbas Araqchi, given the close connections of some of the accused with the president’s circle.
Araqchi is charged with diverting the course of investigations by presenting misleading reports to the Iranian Judiciary about the case.
The bigger mystery in the case is about the role of the Intelligence Ministry. The Ministry has confirmed that its representative was aware of the six out of the 28 meetings in which Aqakhani received the $140 million. Following Aqakhani’s detention, the Ministry told the Judiciary that he was acting within the intelligence network that controlled the forex market.
What is not yet known is whether the Intelligence Ministry has helped its confidant Aqakhani and his team to get away with the case and has spirited them out of the country. Could that “certain unit” be the Intelligence Ministry?
It is difficult to answer these questions as the court sessions are being held behind closed doors. Yet, the ambiguities surrounding this case present an accurate image of how Iran deals with financial corruption.