Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Echoes of an Ink-Stained Martyr

June 19th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Among the many ghostly memories conjured up by Iran’s current tumult, the unsolved murder of Paul Klebnikov is one of the most unexpected. After all, Klebnikov was known primarily for his investigative journalism in Russia, where he exposed myriad tales of corruption, thuggery, and outright theft. Yet The Lede recently reminded us of Klebnikov’s fine work in Iran, where he courageously delved into the family finances of the nation’s religious leaders. One of his key targets was Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now one of the ongoing drama’s key players. What Klebnikov discovered certainly made him persona non grata in Tehran’s corridors of power:

The 1979 revolution transformed the Rafsanjani clan into commercial pashas. One brother headed the country’s largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran’s $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani’s sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far). Today, operating through various foundations and front companies, the family is also believed to control one of Iran’s biggest oil engineering companies, a plant assembling Daewoo automobiles, and Iran’s best private airline.

Revisiting Klebnikov’s “Millionaire Mullahs” piece made us wonder about the state of the investigation into his assassination. Alas, the news is not good—last year, Russia’s permitted the prosecutors to suspend the case indefinitely, meaning that it’s virtually guaranteed that no one will ever face justice for the crime.

But Klebnikov’s friends haven’t given up. And we’re encouraged by the fact that the effort is being led by the great Richard Behar, author of perhaps the best investigative business story ever written—and not just because it describes the Sultan of Brunei’s eldest son as someone “who can’t walk and chew gum.”


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • CapVandal

    This puts a little different spin on the morality play the press is faithfully reporting.

    One aspect of the current situation that was very briefly reported was the dispute between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani regarding the former’s accusation of corruption.

    Nice to know that it has some basis in fact.

    So now it is quite illuminating that what is really going on is a raw grab for power and wealth among the current elite.

    The West desperately wants to cut some sort of deal with Iran regarding their nuclear ambitions. Even though it seems to be in Iran’s interest, it may not be to their ruling elite.

    The US will cut reasonably attractive deals to avoid nuclear instability. The deal with Libya demonstrates that we will leave dictatorships alone if they give up a largely failed nuclear program. Plus we kept a deal with the USSR over Cuba for over 40 years.

    Good post.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @CapVandal: Thanks for the great comment.

    Agreed, there’s some behind-the-scenes beef going on that’s tough to process for Western observers. It’s the sort of story that won’t come out in full ’til the smoke has cleared (both figuratively and literally).

    I’m skeptical of our ability to prevent Iran from building a bomb, though, no matter how much we sweeten the pot. No matter which mullah ends up in charge, Iran’s elite seems too bent on the project to back down now. They see it as a surefire road to the sort of international respect they crave.

  • Jordan


    I’ve actually been wondering about your last point. If there is in fact a revolution that ousts the current leadership, will the plaudits from democratic countries around the world be enough to move them in the other direction? Can we substitute positive acknowledgment of what the country can do for the previous status quo of intense acrimony? While not meant to belittle the country and people of Iran, the actions of the government over the last few years have sometimes felt comparable to that kid we all had to deal with who would run around punching people just to get attention.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: My hunch is that no matter what happens in Iran, the pillars of the nation’s foreign policy will not change. It will still pursue nuclear power, with an eye toward developing nuclear weapons. And it will continue to exert influence throughout the Middle East, often in a way that conflicts with American goals.

    There’s no question that Iran has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to dealing with the West. But not without some cause–remember, Obama made a point of apologizing for the American role in the 1953 coup, since that incident still rankles in Tehran. And Britain has been a big Khamenei target in recent speeches b/c of its colonial past in the region. The wounds caused by that Western interference run a lot deeper than we might think.