Iranian Diplomacy- Soon after President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, his omnipresent special aide, his brother Hossein Fereydoun, was given an extra seat in the nuclear talks beside Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team of negotiators in September 2013. His task then was to directly report details of the talks on the phone to his older President brother, in Sorkhei, the distinct vernacular of Rouhani’s hometown of Sorkheh, so alien even to Persian speakers it has been be used for double-coding radio communications in the fronts of the Iraqi-imposed war. The Principlists argue that the double-coding was once again employed to avoid wiretapping by domestic intelligent services.
Later, when Hossein Fereidoun made it a habit to frequent the talks, this man of many parts turned more and more heads. Iranian foreign ministry officials said Fereidoun was attending the talks upon the request of Mr. Zarif who was unable to shuttle between Tehran and mostly European cities that hosted the talks. While domestic media outlets raised questions about Fereidoun’s legal status, foreign interpreters saw it as an emblem of Iran’s serious approach to the talks. In spite of domestic objections, he became an indispensable part of the talks, later thanked by US Secretary of State John Kerry for his role in the unprecedented prisoner swap between Iran and the US on the JCPOA implementation day.
In fact, the Principlist camp, more so its hardline division, the Paydari front, put a long-run process in place to demonize him, with the fire on an incremental trend. Early in 2015, Hamid Rasaee accused “H. F.” of receiving 50 billion rials ($1.3m) in aid during Rouhani’s presidential campaign from Iranian tycoon Babak Zanjani, now sentenced to death over bypassing sanctions on Iran’s oil sale before the nuclear deal.
Other allegations concerned the so-called corrupt mafia of Hinduja Group, allegedly linked with the Rouhani administration, all of a sudden invoked days before the parliamentary election in late February 2016. Alireza Zakani, a former MP at the heart of the ‘Report of a Catastrophe’, went so far as to directly urge Mr. Rouhani, ‘who insists on fighting corruption’, to say what his brother, Hossein Fereidoun, was doing in the country.
In a later series of attacks, Zakani once again spoke out about Fereidoun’s role in multimillion-Dirham interest-free loans by foreign branches of Iranian banks to at least two bank megadebtors. Lawmaker Mohammad Javad Akbari told Tasnim that the latter has been awarded refuge and removed from Interpol’s wanted list by the help of foreign intelligence services after receiving huge amounts in loan from Mellat and Melli banks. Tasnim claimed to be in possession of documents that show one of the megadebtors has transferred money to accounts belonging to Fereidoun’s daughter in London and Canada. Abtahi also noted that the same debtor has worked with Fereidoun’s wife, Azar Ghafouri, in a charity cancer screening institute. A further episode involving Fereishoun’s wife is a separate document that shows another megadebtor has bought a residence worth 14 billion tomans (approximately $3.6m) in the name of Ghafouri.
These came in the wake of a scandal over unconventional pay checks hitting online, dubbed as the Fichegate, still victimizing senior officials especially in the country’s banking system, including those in the National Development Fund who resigned en masse. Following Refah bank CEO Ali Sedghi’s substitution over the scandal, Justice Nasser Seraj, director of Iran’s General Inspection Office, told reporters that Sedghi’s appointment came as the result of Fereidoun’s pressures and lobbies, despite his being informed of the former’s record of financial corruptions, apparently under investigation.
Still a separate allegation concerns Fereidoun’s partnership in a bureau de change with Sedghi in 2012, when the Iranian rial crashed, providing ‘profiteers of sanctions’, generally supposed to be privileged Principlists, with enormous financial gains over the increasingly widening exchange rates.
Even before the recent arrest, Fereidoun had his own “major occultation”, in the words of reform-oriented daily Aftab-e-Yazd. Back in May 2016, the daily reported that Fereidoun, who was always literally shoulder to shoulder with his brother, had disappeared from the public’s eye for at least two months. Unverified rumors at the time had it that Rouhani was advised on behalf of the Supreme Leader to discharge his brother of administrative responsibilities and the President refused. The rumors seemed more of a typical mental residue of what Ahmadinejad did over his main man Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, known as his ‘eleven-day tantrum’ during which he reportedly did not appear in his presidential office on Tehran’s Pasteur Street. As his absence stretched, it was even rumored that Fereidoun was arrested, a report that was soon dismissed by judiciary officials and later by him.
Almost exactly a year ago, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency revealed that Fereidoun had abused his brother’s status in 2014 to obtain an otherwise illegal recommendation letter by Sanjesh organization, Iran’s higher education assessment authority, to study international relations PhD courses in the prestigious Shahid Beheshti University. The parliamentary education committee is currently probing the issue.
To sum up, his allegations so far only mooted in Principlist media include the founding of a bureau de change while in executive positions, role in the pay slip scandal, involvement in the appointment of Refah Bank CEO, participation in a corruption case with the former CEO of Mellat Bank, privileged education, and his part in the $780m loss of Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE).
Fereidoun used to remain tight-lipped in the face of accusation, until a letter of notice signed by 46 lawmakers was read in the parliament on January 04. Two weeks later he wrote a letter in response, denying all the accusations. Hassan Rouhani is also believed to have written a letter to Speaker Ali Larijani to defend his brother.
What might also have infuriated the Principlists, besides foreign ties and much-doubted financial corruptions, is Fereidoun’s undeclared duty as a fill-in for Rouhani on occasions and places he cannot show up. He has visited dissident leaders under house arrest in hospitals, to send the President’s regards. Last year, a photo of him emerged in the company of the recently-released reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh who had spent seven years in prison since the disputed 2009 presidential election over charges of assembly and collusion against national security and propaganda against the establishment. When pushed to apologize, Fereidoun said the visit was not planned.
Most observers in the pro-reform camp saw the Sunday arrest of Hossein Fereydoun as leverage for the Principlist camp to pressure Rouhani to make concessions in the arrangement of his cabinet. Fereydoun was released late on Monday after his hefty bail (60 billion Tomans – approximately 16 million dollars) was paid by ‘friends’. But his detention shows how determined Rouhani’s rivals are to up the ante.