December 8, 2023

Massive $3 Billion Currency Misuse in Iranian Tea Import Scandal Uncovered, Tehran’s Air Quality Crisis: Mazut Burning and Soaring Pollution Levels Trigger Health Alert, and More

Week of December 4, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Massive $3 Billion Currency Misuse in Iranian Tea Import Scandal Uncovered

An investigation by the Iranian National Inspection Organization has revealed a significant corruption case involving the misuse of nearly $3 billion in preferential currency for imports. From 2018 to 2022, a tea trading group misappropriated $2.7 billion of this currency, which was allocated for the import of machinery and tea. The amount of corruption amounts to approximately 140 trillion Iranian Rials, a record figure in the history of the Iranian economy.

In preferential currency allocation, foreign currencies are provided at a lower rate than the actual market price to importers of essential goods as part of an effort to mitigate the impact of sanctions. As a result, consumers are supposed to be able to secure essential goods at lower prices. This policy aims to assist vulnerable sections of society by controlling the prices of basic commodities, animal feed, medicines, and medical equipment, ensuring that they are affordable to middle- and lower-income families. This scheme initially covered all basic goods, including travel expenses. Due to Iran’s limited foreign currency resources, the list of items eligible for this preferential currency has gradually been reduced over the years. However, as the tea scandal indicates, it is a system that can enable extensive corruption.

Given Iran’s annual consumption of 80 to 100 thousand tons of tea and a domestic production of about 30 thousand tons, the remainder of the demand is met by imports. There are 131 companies recognized by the Central Bank for the importation of tea. The largest share of currency for tea imports from 2018 to 2022 was allocated to four Iranian tea companies under the “Dabesh” brand.

These four companies received approximately $1.4 billion of the $1.8 billion allocated for tea imports through a dubious and preferential process. Based on an average import price of $5.5 per kilogram of tea, the $1.4 billion could have imported approximately 250,000 tons, covering the country’s needs for the next three years.

In a notable development, Dabesh Group, which imports tea, tea bag paper, and machinery, received over $3.29 billion in preferential currency from 2015 to 2022. A significant portion of this fund, approximately $2.8 billion, was allocated during the current government’s tenure from 2021 to 2022. Despite committing to import 180,000 tons of tea in 2021, the company imported approximately 75,000 tons. Additionally, they failed to fulfill $650 million of their foreign currency obligations, a serious offense.

In the absence of currency allocation, the State Trading Corporation faced difficulties in importing essential goods and pharmaceuticals, resulting in spoilage or accumulation in ports. According to reports, Dabesh Group has often delayed addressing their enormous debt by rescheduling. In response to reports including a letter from tea industry activists to the Vice President, the President’s Special Inspection Office has initiated an investigation into this matter. After discovering and investigating the corruption, the office issued a travel ban against the individual involved and referred the case to the appropriate judicial authorities.

127 other companies in the tea import industry have been adversely affected by the monopoly and preferential treatment granted to Dabesh Green Growth and its three subsidiaries. The judiciary, security agencies, and the President’s Inspection Office are currently working on the issue, but transparency from the Ministries of Industry, Mining, and Trade, as well as Agriculture, is essential for progress to continue.

Iran’s judiciary chief has announced that the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi has not yet referred any government officials implicated in the tea import corruption case to the courts. In a speech marking Student Day on Thursday, December 7, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei stated, “The judiciary will address the cases of all individuals facing accusations, regardless of their position.” 

Mohseni-Ejei indicated that many had lost their jobs in the tea imports scandal, though that no criminal charges had yet been filed. “The government has reported that sixty individuals involved in misconduct have been dismissed, but so far they have not been brought before the courts,” he said. IEjei asserted that this corruption began in 1398 (2019/2020) but the majority occurred in the last two years, indirectly attributing responsibility to Raisi’s government. 

As reported by ILNA, a source close to the administration of Hassan Rouhani said the judiciary is being urged to publicly disclose the details of the tea import corruption case in order to clarify the facts. According to the source, whose identity was not disclosed, allegations have been made against the Rouhani government by individuals close to President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration. The source stated, “If the corruption started in 1398 (2019/2020), why did the then head of the National Inspection Organization, now the head of the President’s special office, and the former head of the judiciary, now the President, not report or publicize this issue?” Abbas Abdi, in an article on Wednesday, December 6th in the Etemad newspaper, responded to these developments by noting,  “The occurrence of a $3.7 billion corruption scandal in a government where even a small amount of foreign currency is significant, is less like finding a needle in a haystack than spotting a buffalo in a small barn.”

Raisi Visits Moscow and Putin

On Thursday, December 7, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow to strengthen economic and trade ties in light of their growing military cooperation. In this meeting, Putin announced a substantial 20% increase in Russia-Iran import and export value, amounting to approximately $5 billion. Throughout the speech, he emphasized the importance of ongoing collaborations in various fields, most notably the strategic North-South transport corridor project, which aims to link Northern Europe and Russia with the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia through Iran.

During his speech, Raisi acknowledged the robust cooperation between the two countries, particularly in areas such as energy and agriculture, and expressed his desire to further strengthen these ties. Further, Putin’s mention of Iran’s imminent entry into the Eurasian Economic Union’s free trade agreement indicates a strengthening of bilateral economic ties.

The Iranian President also addressed the Israel-Hamas conflict, denouncing the violence in Gaza as a humanitarian crisis, calling for an immediate ceasefire and inviting Putin to Tehran. Raisi claimed positive results from his visit to Moscow, particularly in the fields of energy, agriculture, transit, and the crucial North-South corridor. 

During his visit, Raisi discussed broadening Iran-Russia relations to strategic levels, following his earlier meeting with Putin in January 2022. A recent rail agreement symbolizes the growing cooperation between the two countries as a result of this ongoing dialogue. In spite of recent rumors on social media about Russia’s non commitment to the Rasht-Astara railway project, both countries have reaffirmed their commitment to the project, as well as other joint initiatives, expected to be completed by 2027. The upcoming signing of a permanent free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union is expected to significantly boost trade, potentially doubling it to $30 billion.

Amnesty International Report Reveals Shocking Sexual Violence by Iranian Forces in ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ Protests

Amnesty International issued an important report alleging widespread sexual violence by Iranian security forces during the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ protests.” The report reveals the appalling pattern of sexual violence used as a weapon against peaceful protestors based on the experiences of 45 victims, including 26 men, 12 women, and seven children.

According to the 155-page report, released on December 6, perpetrators from different security and military branches, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Basij militia, Ministry of Intelligence and police forces engaged in sexual assaults and violence. In spite of these documented cases, no Iranian official has yet been prosecuted for these heinous crimes.

In a press statement, Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, highlighted the harrowing testimonies. She emphasized that sexual violence is a key weapon in the arsenal of the Islamic Republic’s authorities in order to suppress dissent and maintain power at all costs. During the protests, women and girls bravely removed their headscarves, and were joined by men and boys in expressing their outrage against decades of gender-based discrimination and broader, systemic repression.

The report details shocking accounts of assaults, including the story of Farzad, a boy who was gang-raped in a police van, and Mariam, a woman who was raped in a Revolutionary Guards detention center. Due to the fear of further harm and a lack of confidence in the Iranian judiciary, these victims, along with others, have largely refrained from filing official complaints.

During the 2009 Green Movement protests, similar patterns of sexual and physical violence were used by security forces at the Kahrizak detention center. Narges Mohammadi, the recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, also worked to shed light on the Iranian authorities’ sexual assaults amid the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement. Despite international outcry, including a recent report by Javaid Rehman, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, highlighting continued violence against women and girls, Iranian authorities have continued their oppressive practices.

Tehran’s Air Quality Crisis: Mazut Burning and Soa#ring Pollution Levels Trigger Health Alert

The Tehran Governor has denied that mazut – a low-quality fuel oil – is being burned around the city, stating that power plants have not yet reached critical conditions to stop using gas fuel. However, this claim is in significant doubt as concerns over air quality continue to rise. Mehdi Pirhadi, head of the Tehran City Council’s Health Commission, seemed to second-guess the Tehran Governor’s claim, stating “it would be better for them to deny that they burned mazut last winter, but can they really deny it?”

Likewise a report from the Health Commission indicates that out of 16 power plants around Tehran, 14 use mazut. This comes as the National Meteorological Organization issued an orange-level alert, predicting unhealthy air quality levels due to pollutant concentrations and stagnant weather conditions, which affect cities such as Tehran, Karaj, Arak, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Mashhad, Tabriz, Semnan, and Qom. On Monday, the level of air pollution in Isfahan reached a “Very Unhealthy” level.

On December 4, Tehran experienced one of its most polluted days of the year, with an air quality index (AQI) of 137, which indicates unhealthy air for sensitive groups. However, meteorologists point out that AQI is an average figure and that areas such as southern Tehran are subject to much higher levels of air pollution. In the AQI, air quality is divided into five categories: 0 to 50 is considered “Clean,” 51 to 100 is considered Acceptable or Moderate, 101 to 150 is categorized as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” 151 to 200 is categorized as “Unhealthy,” 201 to 300 is considered “Very Unhealthy,” and 301 to 500 is considered “Hazardous.” Accordingly, the average of 137 on December 4 in Tehran suggests that people with heart disease, the elderly, and children were at risk.

According to the head of the National Center for Air and Climate Change at the Environmental Protection Agency, over 26,000 deaths were attributed to air pollution in 33 cities in 1401. Studies conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2022 estimated the damages estimated at $11.3 billion from air pollution, with Tehran alone accounting for over 6,000 pollution-related deaths and $3 billion in damages.

Environmental Activist Sam Rajabi Freed After Six-Year Imprisonment

After serving a six-year sentence, environmental activist Sam Rajabi has been released from prison. Bahman Daralshafa, a member of the environmental community, announced Rajabi’s release on the social media site X. Likewise, his sister Katyoun Rajabi shared a photo of Sam on social networking site X on Sunday, December 3.

Sam Rajabi was one of eight environmental activists arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence organization and sentenced to six years in prison on February 18, 2020. Hooman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Takher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz, and Kavous Seyed-Emami were also detained. Tahbaz and Bayani received 10-year sentences, Jokar and Ghadirian received 8-year sentences, and Sam Rajabi and Sepideh Kashani received 6-year sentences.

According to the Ministry of Intelligence during Hassan Rouhani’s government and the Environmental Organization, these environmental activists were not considered spies at the time. Seyed-Emami was killed in prison in 2018, just days after his arrest, under suspicious circumstances. In spite of his family’s protests, Seyed-Emami’s death was never independently investigated, and the Islamic Republic’s judiciary deemed it a suicide. As part of an agreement mediated by Qatar between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Tahbaz, along with other dual-national Iranian prisoners, were released in September.

GCC Reasserts Territorial Claims Against Iran, Tehran Defends Sovereignty and Calls for Regional Cooperation

The Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states reiterated their claims against Iran at the 44th meeting in Doha, Qatar. They claimed Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the sole owners of the Arash (Al-Durra) gas field, expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and affirmed their position regarding the ownership of the three Iranian islands – Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb – disregarding Iranian sovereignty and declaring them to be part of the UAE. However, the recent Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement, mediated by China, was endorsed as a positive step towards resolving regional disputes and conflicts through dialogue and political engagement. Still, many of the claims provoked a response from Iran.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani criticized the GCC’s final statement as unacceptable, affirming Iran’s position on its territorial integrity and sovereignty over the islands. Kanaani highlighted Iran’s missile capabilities as part of a transparent military doctrine aimed at deterrence and national security. In his view, the real threats to regional security are external forces’ military presence and the “Zionist regime,” or Israel. He emphasized Iran’s role in combating terrorism and strengthening maritime security, reiterating its adherence to international law and continued collaboration with the IAEA. As a result of bilateral discussions with Kuwait, he also emphasized Iran’s commitment to friendly and constructive energy cooperation, particularly in the Arash region.

Further, Kanaani emphasized the importance of Iran’s policy of strengthening relations with neighboring countries based on mutual respect, non-interference, and good neighborliness. During his remarks, he emphasized that Iran is committed to fostering a stable, secure, and prosperous region, free of foreign intervention.

Baqer Momeni, an Iranian author and historian, passes away at the age of 97 in Paris

Baqer Momeni, a prominent Iranian writer and historian, passed away in Paris at the age of 97. Momeni was born in Kermanshah in 1926 and joined the Tudeh Party of Iran while studying law in Tehran. He was imprisoned after the 1953 coup d’état. Following his release from prison in 1958, Momeni developed a critical perspective on the Tudeh Party and its Soviet leanings. In 1960, he published his thesis entitled “Iran on the Eve of the Constitutional Revolution.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Momeni studied in France twice, writing his thesis at the Sorbonne University entitled “The Land Issue and Class War in Iran.” Through the Contemporary Voice Publishing House in France, he published works by authors such as Ali-Ashraf Darvishian, Ghodsi Ghazinour, and Nasser Zarafshan.

Momeni also clandestinely published “Maktoobat,” a pamphlet by Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh, one of the first Iranian intellectuals, during the pre-revolution era, a work which is still not authorized for publication in Iran. Maktoobat is considered by many to be a precursor to Iran’s modern intellectual movement, and criticized the fundamental pillars of Qajar society in politics and religion.

Momeni contributed to magazines such as “Contemporary Voice,” “Akhar,” and “Andisheh” during the early years of the Islamic Revolution, but was forced to leave Iran in 1981 and settled in France. The periodical “Iranian Culture and Art” was published there by him. His other notable works include ‘Religion and State in the Constitutional Era,’ ‘Iranian Islam and Political Sovereignty,’ and ‘The World of Arani.’ His passing marks the loss of a significant figure in Iranian intellectual and historical circles.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards confirm the death of two members in an Israeli attack in Syria

Two members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were killed in an Israeli attack on Syrian territory on Saturday, December 2. In a rare statement, the military-security institution of the Islamic Republic identified the deceased as Mohammad Ali Ataei Shurchi and Panah Taghizadeh, stating they were killed “while on an advisory mission” during the Israeli assault.

In its statement, the IRGC did not specify when the two members were killed in Syria, but the confirmation coincides with reports from the Syrian state news agency, SANA, which reported an Israeli airstrike near Damascus early Saturday morning. According to Syrian officials, the attack did not result in any casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicated that the strike targeted positions of Iranian-backed militia groups south of Damascus. According to the observatory – an opposition group to Bashar al-Assad’s regime – two Syrian Hezbollah members were killed and seven others were injured, two critically.

Witnesses told Agence France-Presse that ambulances were dispatched to the area following an explosion around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday in Damascus’ Zainabia neighborhood. The previous Sunday, Israel also conducted an airstrike on Damascus airport. In earlier attacks by Israel on Damascus and Aleppo airports on October 12 and 22, both major Syrian air travel hubs were temporarily disabled. Iran-backed militias have launched attacks against Israel and U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen since the beginning of the Gaza conflict, prompting several counterattacks by U.S. forces.

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