Middle East

Babak Zanjani: Downfall of an Iranian billionaire

BBC Persian's Fardad Fahrazad meets Babak Zanjani in a car park in Dushanbe
Image caption Mr Zanjani has denied withholding oil revenue

Babak Zanjani, sentenced to death in Iran for corruption, was an extraordinary person who went from trading sheepskins in the 1980s to becoming a key player in selling Iran's oil in the years when crippling international sanctions were imposed over the country's nuclear programme.

He called himself a hero, an economic soldier of the Islamic revolution who came to his country's rescue when the government could not sell oil or, even if they did, no international banks would agree to transfer Iran's money due to the sanctions.

He established one of the biggest enterprises in Iran's recent history, a holding that was involved in everything from transport to construction, from owning football clubs to selling oil, banking both inside Iran and abroad.

At one stage he valued himself at around $13.5bn (£9.5bn), an extraordinary figure for a country where most of the economy is owned by the state and the private sector is restricted.

Private jets

It appears that he fronted his country in the markets, selling oil and returning money to Iran through a complex network of banks and businesses, some of which were set up and owned by his business empire, Sorinet Group.

For years things worked well for the businessman, who appeared in photos with high-ranking officials and was not shy of showing off his wealth, such as private jets and luxury cars.

But when the local media started to report on his wealth, he came under the spotlight and under suspicion.

Questions were eventually raised about how he could have made so much money so fast.

He was already under scrutiny when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office and, a few months after the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani took office, Zanjani was arrested and accused of corruption and embezzlement.

The ministry of oil in the new government said Zanjani owed them $1.9bn in oil money and new claims were laid against him later on.

His defence team has always denied all the charges of corruption and says that, if he is released from prison and allowed access to his business network, he will return all the money he owes - something that sounds very unlikely after the death sentence announced on Sunday.

The sentence could have wider implications for Iran's economy, where many were involved in finding ways to avoid the sanctions.

Years of sanctions and the unorthodox ways that Iranian businesses found to get around the sanctions have created a situation where many business activities could fall into a grey area.

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