Middle East

Iranian tycoon claims EU sanctions are unfair

BBC Persian's Fardad Fahrazad meets Babak Zanjani in a car park in Dushanbe Image copyright other
Image caption Meeting in a car park in Dushanbe: Babak Zanjani gives a rare interview to BBC Persian

Iranian billionaire businessman Babak Zanjani has amassed the kind of fortune that could qualify him for a place on Forbes rich list. Instead he is on an EU sanctions list, accused of facilitating illicit oil deals for the Islamic Republic.

Members of Iran's business elite don't usually open up to the BBC, especially when they're accused of sanctions busting, but I was offered a rare chance to interview him on a visit to Central Asia.

A bus station in Tajikistan seems an unlikely place to meet a member of the world's super-rich.

Babak Zanjani has more money in the bank than the entire GDP of this tiny former Soviet republic, but in the past few years he has been investing in businesses here, and today he is in town for the inauguration of his latest venture - a smart new transport hub for the capital, Dushanbe.

Standing in front of a fleet of gleaming mini-buses, with the snow-capped Pamir mountains in the background, Mr Zanjani talks about the recent chain of events that have catapulted him into the headlines both at home in Iran and abroad.

It all began last December when the European Union named him as "a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil related money".

The EU said he was helping Iran to get round international sanctions by selling oil abroad and channelling the profits back via his Malaysia-based First Islamic Bank.

Mr Zanjani is adamant that he has been wrongly accused.

"I didn't buy Iranian crude oil. I was buying low quality fuel oil to sell to Malaysia," he said.

"The US and the EU have exempted several countries from the sanctions on Iran, Malaysia is one of them."

Well connected

Until the EU singled him out, few Iranians had ever heard of Mr Zanjani. But it soon emerged that this unassuming 42-year-old was actually one of the country's major businessmen.

From a base in Dubai he controls a network of more than 60 companies involved in everything from cosmetics production to oil and banking. He also owns the Tehran football club, Rah Ahan.

Mr Zanjani complains that the EU sanctions have had a negative impact on his business, forcing him to repatriate some of his assets from his bank in Malaysia.

"Because of the problems I faced [with sanctions], I had to transfer about 4bn Euros ($5.2bn; £3.4bn) of my overseas resources to Iran," he complains,

His problems with sanctions may explain why someone in Mr Zanjani's league is involved in relatively small projects like the Dushanbe bus station.

He is clearly very well connected in Tajikistan - the president and a large entourage of officials turned up for the grand opening. In addition to the bus business he also owns an airline and perhaps more importantly for him, a bank.

The mysterious Mr Z

Little is known about Mr Zanjani's background, beyond the fact that he was born in Tehran and has a degree in crisis management from a Turkish university and started out selling cosmetics.

Although it is not clear how he managed to amass such a fortune so fast, it is evident that he is extremely well connected.

In January he was back in the news in Iran when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named him during an extraordinary row in the Iranian parliament.

Image copyright other
Image caption Babak Zanjani says that as a business man in Iraq he had to carry weapons

Lashing out at MPs seeking to impeach his labour minister, the president accused the speaker of parliament's brother of asking for a bribe from a mysterious "Mr Z" in return for giving him access to his brothers, who are the heads of the judicial and legislative branches.

Shortly after that speech, a secretly filmed video of Mr Zanjani appeared on the internet along with several controversial photographs.

One showed him on a private plane sitting next to an Iranian security officer, notorious for his role in the violent crackdown against protesters after the disputed presidential elections in 2009.

Another showed him carrying a gun. He laughs this off, saying it dated back to days when he worked in Iraq and everyone carried a gun for security.

And he also tried to play down his connections in Iran.

"I'm proud of working as a businessman for the Islamic Republic of Iran," he says. "I don't do anything political, I just do business."

But business and politics are very closely connected in Iran.

Mr Zanjani may be on the sanctions list, but with friends in high places, a banking empire and a network of companies stretching across several countries he may also be in a unique position to capitalize on sanctions.

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