by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog (cross-posted with PressTV)

There are many pieces of nonsense about Iran which are fervently believed in the West but which have zero credibility inside Iran. “Millionaire Mullahs” is a concept which has captivated the Western imagination, even though it has no basis in reality.

The idea of “Millionaire Mullahs” was conceived in 2003 by the uber-capitalist magazine Forbes. What’s worse, it was created by their longtime Russia editor… Russia during the age of Yeltsin, when neoliberal capitalism was shamelessly gutting all the nations of the former Soviet Union and transferring the longtime assets of the people/state to Western high finance.

The idea “sounds right” to Western ears for three likely reasons: they are often ardently secular and suspicious of all religious authority, they assume all Muslim religious authorities are as rabidly capitalist as the Roman Catholic Church has often been, and also because they know nothing about the revolutionary (unique) and inherently anti-capitalist post-1979 changes to the Iranian economy.

Let’s stop with the nonsense: being a mullah in Iran usually places one in the lower middle class. Iranian Shia clergy do not have extravagant lifestyles, and they have certainly chosen the wrong calling if that was their aim. Furthermore, the Iranian press – which casts an open and intensely critical eye on the government, contrary to Western perceptions – would absolutely have a field day were there any mullahs living the lavish lives of millionaires. The entire idea is absurd and – rather crucially – unproven.

The subject has come up again, due to the incredibly foolish sanctions by the US against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, like his predecessor in the Leader post, Ruhollah Khomeini, and his family are known by all Iranians for living simple lifestyles and for possessing absolutely common levels of personal wealth. How does all of Iran know this? Well, doesn’t everyone in the US know the general financial background of Trump?

But first, a bit of background for non-Iranians: Khamenei is from clerical families on both sides of his parents. They were not rich clerics, but lower-middle class, like the majority of Iranian clergy. The 1979 Revolution was decidedly class-based – it was called “the revolution of the barefooted” – and this extended to the clerical class as well, so it should not be surprising that someone from Khamenei’s class background rose so high.

Because clerics are humans, they have a right to have varied personal interests: ex-Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani was rather an Iranian Islamic Revolution anomaly – a revolutionary cleric from a rich background (pistachio farmers) – and he had a personal interest in the affairs of business. It is common knowledge that Khamenei has never evinced this interest, and nor have his several brothers, who are also clerics – the family’s interests are clearly religion and politics.

Furthermore, simply check out his speeches on YouTube (and perhaps while you still can do so, as PressTV was banned from YouTube in April): Khamenei is always discussing the example of his namesake, Imam Ali, the personification of personal austerity in Islam. “Shia” means “partisan of Ali”, so non-Muslims should be able to easily imagine that if Khamenei was constantly exhorting everyone to follow “Pope” Ali’s worthy example, yet not following it himself… this would be cause for immediate and widespread comment among the highly-educated, very politically-involved Iranian general public.

So even the whiff of a mere rumour of personal embezzlement would be a major risk to Khamenei’s job status! Part 2 will fully quote and explain the begrudging exoneration of Khamenei by one of his biggest adversaries – Western mainstream media – that there is “no evidence” that Khamenei has used Iran’s wealth to enrich himself. And, of course, there is no logical reason why he would thus tolerate theft and fraud among his fellow lower-ranking clergy who also work as civil servants.

Khomeini’s and Khamenei’s precedents of clearly living in a manner which rejects worldly riches will certainly help produce this same type of Leader in the future, but whoever is the Supreme Leader at any time in the Islamic Republic of Iran will likely be forced to live lives of transparent piety and to display moral, spiritual and fiscal rectitude – that, combined with self-sacrificing patriotism, is the very essence of the job. The Supreme Leader post is not that of a technocrat, as Western leaders are now often merely supposed to be – he is essentially called to act as the “soul of the nation”, and, I would also add, “of the government”.

Such values are anathema to Western secularism, which is a governmental philosophy that was certainly available in 1979 for Iranians to select. However, even atheistic secularists must concede that Western-style secularism was democratically rejected by Iranians, and this fact cannot be ignored, no matter how disagreeable non-Iranians may find this fact.

To put it plainly: Does the West really think that Iranians don’t have a good sense of Khamenei’s personal morality? He has been living in the public eye longer than French President Emmanuel Macron has been alive, and the French all know about Macron’s privileged upbringing, marriage to a chocolate heiress who was his high school teacher, and Rothschild banker-paid lifestyle. An entire nation simply cannot be kept in the dark about the true personal nature of its leaders; people are not stupid, anywhere, and and the Iranian press is far from being either non-existent or totally subservient to power.

You can take the average Iranian’s word for it: if Khamenei was living lavishly – or, living like every single Western CEO does, and with absolutely zero Western media condemnation, sadly) – all of Iran would know it, and there would be serious repercussions.

This all explains why Iranians view the recent US sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as absurd and based on both propaganda and ignorance. The sanctions put the The New York Times in a quandary – they had to choose between their iron-law Iranophobia and their equally unobjective anti-Trump editorial policy. Their jeering-but-accurate headline, “Iran Greets Latest U.S. Sanctions With Mockery”, reflects that the anti-Trumpers drowned out the Irano-/Islamophobes… on that day in their newsroom.

Beyond Khamenei, I can very briefly explain how and why the West can persist with their “Millionaire Mullah” mythology:

There are many economic principles that guide the Iranian economy which have no basis in the West – they are, after all, “revolutionary”. Many are based on principles of Islamic charity and of Islamic finance; many are also based on anti-capitalist principles which were obviously drawn from 20th century socialism. There are almost too many to list, but in Part 2 of this 3-part article I will pick a few key ones which specifically relate to clergy, and which – when added with Iranophobia – create such widespread and ignorant propaganda.

Part Two

Beyond Khamenei, I can very briefly explain how and why the West can persist with their “Millionaire Mullah” mythology:

There are many economic principles that guide the Iranian economy which have no basis in the West – they are, after all, “revolutionary”. Many are based on principles of Islamic charity and of Islamic finance; many are also based on anti-capitalist principles which were obviously drawn from 20th century socialism. There are almost too many to list, but in Part 2 of this 3-part article I will pick a few key ones which specifically relate to clergy, and which – when added with Iranophobia – create such widespread and ignorant propaganda.

One of the five pillars of Islam is to give to charity (zakat), but one of the five additional pillars of Shia theology is that businessmen must give 20% of their profits to charity (khums). Thus, it should be clear why some say that Iran has an “alms-based economy”. That’s an exaggeration, because there are state taxes as well, but this money goes directly to religious authorities and has gone there for over 1,000 years.

For example, Khamenei was raised in a family (lower middle class clerics on both sides of his parents) which would have never received this money directly – they would have been the recipients of this charity from much higher-ranking clergy.

Khamenei, through hard work, sacrifice and other virtues, is now a “Marja’” (top religious authority). He now heads various religious foundations which receive – and redistribute downwards – this zakat and khums money.

Of course, he heads these foundations, but this money cannot (and is not) be used by him to by a Ferrari for his favourite nephew, for example. The Iranian press would die of happiness at the sales prospects caused by such a sensational, unheard-of event! These are “religious foundations” not “The Clinton Foundation”: These foundations serve the poor – they do not trade high-level political access & favours in return for funding a jet-set lifestyle. Of course, most Western media cynically assume that everyone – even a Marja’, and even a Marja’ as publicly present as Khamenei – secretly operates on shameless Western capitalist principles….

Let’s clarify two key issues: zakat and khums are individual choices – they are not compelled to go to Khamenei. Iranians can send their charity to a Marja’ in Iraq if they like, and many do. Secondly, drastically changing this historic process of zakat and khums would certainly constitute a major revolution in Iran – however, for many it would constitute a rather “un-Islamic Revolution”, and there is no doubt that the democratic majority wanted an “Islamic Revolution”.

Therefore, Islamic charity is a reality of modern economics and finance in Iran. It is not something which non-Muslims can easily comprehend, perhaps, but the failure to do so will help fuel nonsense like “Millionaire Mullahs”. Unlike neoliberalism in the West, these financial principles have the virtue of being democratically-supported, and I can easily argue that they have the additional virtue of far more efficiently increasing economic equality than neoliberalism does.

Khamenei, as the Supreme Leader, is also often listed as the head of companies simply out of respect by the company’s founders. It is often purely honorary. Khamenei is not, for example, giving ideas on product improvement or production strategies to such companies (now the rare ex-president Rafsanjani – rare because he was an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary cleric from a rich, business-oriented background might have gotten involved, but Khamenei has evinced no such interest) and he is absolutely not in any control of the company’s assets. He is there in name only as a sign of respect for him, Islam, Iran, etc. Of course, this is distorted/misunderstood by Western pro-capitalist papers.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution also did something which no doubt enrages Western imperialist-capitalists, and about which they have no desire to spread honest information: the revolution took a huge chunk of the factories and industries owned by the shah and his tiny coterie and gave them to charity.

These are called the bonyads, and they are an estimated 15-20% of the entire Iranian economy. A staggeringly revolutionary concept, no?

The bonyads are thus different from the Islamic charity I have described, and the Islamic foundations which administer that charity, because the bonyads were expressly charged with getting involved in economic production.

The bonyads are not designed for capitalist profit, but are co-operatives which exist to create low-cost goods and jobs for Iranians. This planned” inefficiency” – in attaining maximum profit, but not in social cohesion and equality – is falsely branded as “corruption” by raging Western capitalists, sadly.

Khamenei heads some bonyads, and this gives him economic influence, of course… because the popular, democratic, openly-debated decision to award a significant chunk of the Iranian economy to the administration of religious authorities was a popular, democratic, openly-debated decision of the Iranian people. Oppose decisions arrived at in this manner, and you oppose democracy for Iran.

Bonyads are not specifically proscribed in The Koran, unlike zakat and the ubiquitous concepts of charity and anti-usury (high interest/compound interest), but if one tries to overturn them… well, all I can say is – prepare for a serious fight. If you think the millions of bonyad workers and recipients of bonyad lower-cost goods want all that to be replaced by (mostly-Western) stockholders… good luck with your efforts.

Very obvious, but of course not perfect, parallels can be made elsewhere: the lower class supporters of Chavismo’s collectivos have won an unprecedented number of votes (and street battles) to preserve similar anti-neoliberal economic concepts and structures. Iran is not nearly as susceptible to Washington’s meddling, in large part because such gains have been consolidating democratic support for the government for a generation longer than in Venezuela. Cuba adopted similar (though not Islamic-influenced) concepts a generation earlier than Iran did. China is a generation up on Cuba, and aren’t they doing rather well? China doesn’t have bonyads, of course, but Beijing and Tehran have such a strong and long-term alliance because they obviously have much in common… once translations are made.

So, between zakat, khums, the bonyads, generalized Iranophobia and a desire to denigrate any economic thought which is not far-right neoliberal capitalism… this is how we have arrived at Western nonsense like “Millionaire Mullahs”, and the propaganda is unrelenting.

Like, for example, the 2013 Reuters report on Setad, a bonyad headed by the Supreme Leader post, which was absurdly titled, “Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures”.

Part 3 will examine this report, which is still being cited today despite its obvious bias, misrepresentations and clear goal of spreading Iranophobic and Islamophobic propaganda.

Part Three

Part 1 of this article discussed why the recent US sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei provoked laughter in Iran and derision even from Iranophobic Western mainstream media.

Part 2 proved that – between zakat, khums, the bonyads, generalized Iranophobia and a desire to denigrate any economic thought which is not far-right neoliberal capitalism – it is easily understandable how we have arrived at Western nonsense like “Millionaire Mullahs”.

Part 3 will show (NOTE: these three links go to the PressTV versions) how this propaganda is unrelenting.

Like the 2013 Reuters report on Setad, a bonyad headed by the Supreme Leader post, “Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures”.

Uhhh… yes, confiscating the ill-gotten property of the king and his 1% was undoubtedly the democratic choice of Iran. Iran is a rare country to have done that, but it was not the first. Economically right-wing Reuters, of course, opposes every such occasion where this has happened.

Reuters’ report spends just ten miserly words to describe for their readers both bonyads and khums, which is certainly not enough to give a sympathetic, much less objective, rendering of these rather vital parts of the Iranian economy. Reuters makes apparent its total disinterest in admitting Setad’s universally-known, multi-billion charitable functions with the brief and dismissive: “It’s unclear how much of its revenue goes to philanthropy.” It’s a report which openly airs the grievances of lawyers based in Beverly Hills, California, because talking about the economically-redistributive concepts at work in the Iranian economy are expressly against Reuters’ editorial policy.

As Reuters admitted, with a brief sentence that indicates their maximum disappointment: “Reuters found no evidence that Khamenei is tapping Setad to enrich himself.” Exactly. All Iran already knew that. Reuters’ buried a sentence which has been a headline in Iran.

Beyond the role of Islamic charity, the usury-banning role of Islamic finance, and the unique (revolutionary) economic principles installed after 1979, the widest-view statement I can give about the Iranian economy is this: because it is (Islamic) socialist-inspired when it comes to handling the economy, the Iranian state controls the Iranian economy even more completely than today’s “hosting tourists is ok” Cuba. Both nations control their economies in a patriotic way, though Iran has, thankfully, far more oil wealth; both nations reject foreign control (neoliberal/globalist capitalism); and both nations have been incredibly successful at improving the lives of their average citizen despite decades of murderous sanctions by the US and Europe.

The revolutionary Iranian economy is thus most succinctly described (this is “daily journalism”, after all) as “Iranian Islamic Socialism” because it is exactly that, and in exactly that order of importance: first come the patriotic needs of Iran, then adherence to the principles of Islam as much as possible, and then the clear rejection of capitalism-imperialism and neoliberalism/globalism. Importantly – at least to those who believe Iranians have a democratic right to choose their own path – Forbes, Reuters and Washington are resolutely dead-set against the success of all of these principles, and their actions and stances show that they view tolerance, accommodation and limited cooperation as impossible.

But this – the enormously anti-neoliberal aspects and the enormously successful redistributive aspects of the Iranian economy – is something the West can never admit because… they might be copied! Indeed, when Washington talks about Iran’s “destabilising behaviors”, there is nothing more destabilising to US and Israeli hegemony in the Muslim world than the very example of Iranian democratic success.

What works usually is copied, but Iranian economic solutions do not “work” for the aristocratic readers of Forbes. Therefore, “Millionaire mullahs” has been the Western editorial line, and they are sticking to it.

It should be clear: it is a well-known reality is that Khamenei does not personally have much to sanction at all; the Iranian economy is so unique (revolutionary) that it is easily distorted and rarely attempted to be understood; the guiding economic concepts democratically installed after the Iranian Islamic Revolution will always be the subject of massive Western propaganda efforts.

Therefore, pity Trump and his New York City slumlord/Pentagon gun-runner advisors – by foolishly sanctioning Khamenei all they did was insult him, and insult his tens of millions of often-ardent supporters, and show their total ignorance of how the Iranian economy actually works!

How did they get so misled? Simple: they read too much Western propaganda, which since 1979 has had an editorial line of “100% fake news, 24/7” when it comes to Iran. Such an editorial line is designed by their 1%-owners to push Trump, and others, to wrongly assume that Iran is some sort of dystopian, totalitarian regime where the top leader owns everything and can liquidate anything at any time for their personal profit.

Such a system only exists in comic books… and in the Arab monarchies. And are sanctions on these Arab despots arriving next? LOL, not likely. Forbes and the neoliberal-loving, English-Canadian Reuters are likely in the middle of preparing their latest puff-piece on yet another Arab monarch-dictator.

It is ironic that the only type of millionaires these rabidly capitalist media seem to have a problem with are of the Iranian clerical variety, a variety which Forbes was the first to ever claim even existed. But the phenomenon they allege does not exist, and Khamenei is often held up as a standard of good and moral leadership in many nations for very justified reasons.

What is certain is that Washington’s ignorance of and opposition to the nature of the Iranian economy will cost them dearly – sanctions on Khamenei will be totally ineffective in reaching their totally unjust aims. Such sanctions are amusing… but that is actually a sad commentary: the decades of murderous sanctions on Iran, Cuba, Korea and others shouldn’t be funny at all.

(Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of “I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China”.)

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