War wounded find comfort from billion-dollar man

INSIDE IRAN Mohsen Rafiqdoost's influence as the head of a huge charitable business spreads far beyond Iran's borders

Tehran - Mohsen Rafiqdoost is a very, very powerful man in Iran. Admired and hated - perhaps feared - in almost equal measure, some say he is as important as the president. A founder of the Revolutionary Guards and enthusiastic sponsor of Lebanon's Hizbollah, he controls more money - at least $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) in turnover alone at the Foundation of the Oppressed - than any other Iranian and is responsible only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader. Undismayed by a parliamentary inquiry into the massive charity he runs, he laughs when asked to explain why his own brother has been accused of involvement in the embezzlement of $70m from an Iranian bank.

He is a small man, 65 years old and grey bearded, almost dwarfed by the stacks of files on the desk. But running the multi-billion-dollar foundation based on Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's former wealth - which has no legal obligation to publish the accounts audited by his own employees - Mr Rafiqdoost's influence spreads far beyond Iran.

Within Tehran's chattering embassies, diplomats wonder whether the Bonyad e-Mostazafan supplies the cash for the Hizbollah or for the $2m bounty on Salman Rushdie. But Mr Rafiqdoost denies it all, boasting of the massive business empire which the foundation now runs in Europe and Asia, its huge new investments in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the former southern Soviet republics of the CIS, its "active role" - as he modestly puts it - in the economy of Iran.

According to Mr Rafiqdoost, the Bonyad invests to make money for the tens of thousands of Iranians who were wounded in the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, and to improve the lot of Iran's urban and rural poor. "We have an active investment in hotels, factories, mining, agriculture and transportation," he says. "The value of our investments in this sector - at the current rate of 3,000 riyals to the dollar - is $3bn. We have many property investments - I don't have the exact statistics - but some of it belonged to the Shah, other parts to his relatives. Even this building you are sitting in belonged to the Shah, who was going to turn it into a business centre." Mr Rafiqdoost estimates last year's profits at around $200m.

No one can deny Mr Rafiqdoost's head for business. For much of the eight- year war with Iraq, he was Minister of the Revolutionary Guards, the undisputed head of his country's arms procurement office, the armourer of the Islamic Republic, responsible for keeping its soldiers fed and armed. In peacetime, he insists, he applies the same energy to the war's Iranian victims.

"We invest 50 per cent of our profits and spend 50 per cent on war wounded and the poor," he says. "When we need to raise more investment, we can sell property. War victims are paid according to their disablement. You remember the man you just saw leaving my office when you came in? Well, he lost both his hands in the war and that counts as 70 per cent disability. We buy houses for people in his position and provide transportation. We give such people a salary each month."

In the first days of the Iranian revolution, a single foundation - busily taking over the Shah's wealth - cared for both the dead and the wounded but this was later split into two, the Bonyad Shahid (Martyrs' Foundation) to care for the families of those who had been killed, and the Bonyad e-Mostazafan (Foundation of the Oppressed) for the wounded. Mr Rafiqdoost says that in five years his Bonyad has paid for 12,000 war-wounded to receive a university education, 1,400 of whom graduated last year and are now working.

But he is vague about the number of companies the Bonyad controls, and says he does not remember the names of the "three or four" companies the foundation runs in the United States, along with American partners - institutions which may find themselves in trouble if President Bill Clinton sticks to his promise of a trade embargo. "But no European or other countries are co-operating with the Americans in this - not even your government, which usually follows American policy."

Mr Rafiqdoost briskly dismisses claims that innocent Iranians have had their property confiscated by the Bonyad merely because their relatives or friends were accused of involvement with the Shah's regime. "Confiscated property had been illegally obtained under the Shah," he says. "But we don't take any property from anyone, the courts make those decisions."

And what of the reports of demonstrations by war veterans outside the Bonyad to complain that funds were not reaching the poor? "It doesn't involve the Bonyad," he replies. "There are no demonstrations ... we have built 150 schools in deprived areas and are building another 15 hospitals."

Nor is Mr Rafiqdoost afraid to talk about himself. Thrown out of high school for his opposition to the Anglo-American-inspired 1953 coup against Mohammed Mossadeq's democratic government, he was imprisoned under the Shah, tortured and would have been executed, he says, had his Savak captors not realised that the Islamic revolution was about to overwhelm the regime.

When I asked him about his brother, Morteza, who faces charges of involvement in embezzling from the Iranian Bank Saderat, I suggested that the amount involved was 23 trillion Iranian riyals. "No - one hundred and twenty- three trillion," he laughed. And there followed a detailed account of how Morteza Rafiqdoost had been falsely accused of fraud because he innocently introduced to the Bank Saderat a client who subsequently ran a scam with a bank employee to use cash from cheques before the legal 48 hours necessary for clearance.

"A few of these cheques - just 3 per cent - were drawn on my brother's account but he made nothing from it; as soon as he found out what was happening, he stopped writing cheques for this man."

So was Mr Rafiqdoost suggesting that the whole affair was a plot to strike at the head of the immensely wealthy Bonyad? Again came the thunderous laugh. "That is absolutely true," he roared. And he seemed confident that no one could accuse him of making any personal profits from the Bonyad. Why, he said with a chuckle, he worked entirely voluntarily for the foundation, earning his money as a businessman quite unconnected to his charitable work.

He clearly enjoyed talking about himself. When I asked whether he was not indeed the most powerful man in Iran, he burst into laughter again. "Of course," he said. "Absolutely."

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