The Leaked Audio File and Debates Over Corruption in Iran

The Leaked Audio File and Debates Over Corruption in Iran
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On February 11, the eve of the 43rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the leaked 50-minute audio recording of a classified conversation between the former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and the former Economic Affairs Deputy Sadegh Zolghadr has become a hot issue in Iran’s political agenda. The relevant recording is crucial, primarily because of its content, and it is significant with regard to the questions that who did record the classified meeting of the top-level IRGC commanders, why did they record it, and who did leak the recording to the press. Moreover, the audio file includes critical names such as former Mayor of Tehran (2005-2017) and current Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and the former IRGC's Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani in the context of corruption.

This file, which is known as the Yas Holding corruption file (2013-2016), includes information about the corruption that arose as a result of agreements between Yas Holding, a significant economic institution of IRGC, and Tehran municipality. In the file, there is a mention of the Quds Force, which carries out cross-border activities of IRGC. Quds Force was allocated a share of the revenues of then-Mayor of Tehran Ghalibaf and Yas Holding. It is claimed that among many corruptions, there are 4 billion dollars of corruption within the scope of only one agreement. In addition, it is known that a 20 trillion tomans (6 billion and 111 million dollars) agreement was signed with Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarter, the most prominent economic structure of IRGC, to take up Tehran’s infrastructure projects in the period that Ghalibaf was the Mayor.

The Yas Holding corruption case was brought to court in September 2017. Since there were IRGC-affiliated institutions in the context of these allegations, suspects were judged by the military court. The decision made against them was approved by the Supreme Court in March 2021, and the prescribed sentences were started to be executed. Among these decisions, the decision concerning Ghalibaf’s assistant Isa Sharifi, which sentenced him to 20 years in prison and a monetary fine, has come into prominence. This sentence has brought some discussions in its wings. Hence it is not possible to conclude such enormous agreements without the knowledge of then-Mayor Ghalibaf, not including him in the trial process has caused discomfort in the conscience of the people.

The Yas Holding File as a Means of Political Confrontation

Even though the Yas Holding corruption file has always been a burden for Ghalibaf, it did not prevent him from ascending Speaker of Parliament's office in his political career. The relevant file was not used as an instrument of pressure against Ghalibaf by only reformist or modest circles. The conservatives, who gained three-quarters of the Parliament in the February 2021 general election, also tried to prevent him from being the Speaker of Parliament due to the mention of his name in the corruption discussions when he was Mayor. Still, they could not achieve their goal. On the other hand, since the file also included a significant institution of IRGC, it has been a necessity for conservatives to be cautious while they were using the relevant pressure instrument against Ghalibaf.

Reformist Mohammad Ali Najafi, the successor of Ghalibaf, who seemed determined to investigate the corruptions in Ghalibaf’s mayoral years, was forced to resign by the establishment. The pressures on Najafi did not come to an end with his resignation. According to the allegations, his second wife Mitra Ostad approached him as a result of the IRGC conspiracy. Then, he had to marry her, and the process led to developments that ended up with the murder of Mitra Ostad by Najafi.

Lastly, there have been some confrontations among the conservative circles in the context of Yas Holding corruption files during the 2021 Presidential Elections. Saeed Mohammad, the Commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarter, who was appointed by the Supreme Leader Khamenei to investigate the file, stated in his final report that Ghalibaf is also responsible with regard to the corruption. Consequently, it paved the way for a confrontation between the supporters of Mohammad and Ghalibaf and his circles in the process of Mohammad’s candidacy for nomination in the Presidential elections. While Mohammad withdrew from the election in favor of Raisi, he visited several cities and engaged in activities during the election process to support Raisi. Although Mohammad expected to take an important position in the cabinet in return for this cooperation, he was not assigned to any office in the cabinet due to the pressure of Ghalibaf. Nevertheless, in order to not offend him completely, he was appointed as the Advisor to the President and Secretary of the Supreme Council of Iran's Free Trade-Industrial and Special Economic Zones.

The Allegations in the Shadow of System Discussions

Some domestic sources argue that the file is currently revived because there will be a change in Iran's administrative system. According to these sources, Iran may experience a system change in two years due to the insufficiency of President Raisi. In this context, it is claimed that the Presidential office will be abolished within the framework of constitutional reform, and Iran, which has a mixed administrative system, will switch to a parliamentary system. Thus, after the abolishment of the Presidency, a top-level Advisory Committee for the Supreme Leader is predicted to be established, which would include Ebrahim Raisi, Mojtaba Khamenei, and Alireza Arafi. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is thought to be the President of the Committee. It is among allegations that the conservative circles that are not satisfied with the potential new role of Ghalibaf, leaked the audio recording.

Resource Transfer to the Quds Force

The Yas Holding corruption file provides clues concerning how IRGC-affiliated Quds Force obtains resources for its activities abroad. It is a real possibility that IRGC has transferred resources to the Quds Force via both Yas Holding and its other economic institutions. The economic institutions, which are affiliated with IRGC, have extensive activities within and outside of the country, and IRGC has the capacity and capability to continue these transfers through the institutions abroad even if resource transfer gets into trouble within the country. It is a well-known fact that the USA considers Iran as one of the top countries which support terrorism due to its monetary support for organizations abroad. The establishment consistently does not approve FAFT in order to prevent these economic relations to come into sight. 

Claims Concerning the Attrition of IRGC

While the mentioning of Soleimani, who became a “national hero” after his murder by the USA, in the context of corruption discussions has offended some circles, there are also some allegations that IRGC is being eroded since it has become the primary actor not only for security and economic developments but also in politics by bringing the file into the agenda in which the top-level IRGC commanders are mentioned.

In conclusion, IRGC has currently reached the peak of its power in every respect. It involves dominantly in all fields, including security, politics, economy, and culture. Nevertheless, following the exclusion of reformist and modest politicians and actors after the 2020 Parliamentary Elections and 2021 Presidential and Local Elections, the conservative circles have stayed alone with themselves. Consequently, it has created a power struggle among them. It is more realistic to interpret the leaked audio file as a part of this rivalry. However, even though there is no specific indicator that reflects on the public, the claims suggesting that Iran will change its administrative system in the near future should not be ignored.