Endowments, known as “waqf” in Islamic tradition, have a noble purpose rooted in making private property available for public benefit, aiming to alleviate societal poverty. However, the transformation of this concept into a breeding ground for corruption and exploitation in Iran underlines a significant departure from its original intent. This article delves into the historical trajectory of endowments in Iran and examines how they have become entangled in a web of government control, ultimately facilitating corruption and looting.
The Evolution of Endowments in Iran:
The history of endowments in Iran dates back centuries, with some historians tracing its roots to the Samanid era. Notably, during the Constitutional Revolution, a significant organizational structure emerged to oversee mosques and endowment properties. Subsequent changes in political power dynamics led to further reconfigurations, with the establishment of the ‘Ministry of Education, Endowments, and Fine Arts Industries’ during the Shah’s dictatorship.
The Rise of Government Influence:
However, a turning point came when the endowment organization was detached from the Ministry of Culture under the Shah’s regime. This transition elevated its status, with one of the Shah’s deputy prime ministers taking the helm. Yet, the real transformation occurred during the era of Khomeini, who sought to wield control over endowment affairs, aligning it with the government’s larger economic institutions.
Under the rule of the current regime, the endowment organization’s reach expanded, falling under the jurisdiction of the regime’s religious authorities. Although ostensibly supervised by the Ministry of Guidance, the practical control over this powerful institution rested with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The head of the organization, appointed by the Minister of Guidance and approved by Khamenei, played a pivotal role in maintaining this complex web of control.
Opaque Wealth, Uncertain Numbers and Astronomical Incomes:
The opacity surrounding the endowment organization’s operations extends to its assets and income. While the government budget allocated significant funds to the Waqf and Charitable Affairs Organization, the exact financial figures remain elusive. In the last five years alone, the organization received around 2.166 trillion tomans from the government budget.
Within the intricate tapestry of Iran’s governmental apparatus, the endowment department emerges as a paradoxical entity—both one of the wealthiest and most lucrative government organizations, yet shrouded in a veil of uncertainty regarding its true holdings.
In 2010, the regime’s parliament Research Center shed light on this enigma through a report titled ‘Challenges and Damages of Endowment Management.’ This document unveiled a staggering revelation: the existence of over 110,000 endowments scattered across the Iranian landscape. But this revelation was only the tip of the iceberg, as the report delved deeper to expose an additional layer of complexity. It introduced the concept of “raghabeh,” referring to more than 700,000 competitors who claimed usufruct rights over the property units within the domain of endowments.
Mehdi Khamushi, the head of the regime’s endowments, further complicated the picture with his statement. In his declaration, he asserted the existence of a staggering 3.5 million endowment properties distributed throughout the country. These endowment properties, which encompass various categories including residential, commercial, industrial, medical, mosque, school, kindergarten, and orphanage properties, exemplify the organization’s expansive reach. Khamushi’s statement, published by the state-run Shabestan news agency, provided an astonishing insight into the magnitude of the organization’s holdings.
However, the saga of opacity doesn’t end here. The state-run Aftab website, in its coverage of the Awqaf organization, drew attention to an unsettling reality. It remarked that the Awqaf organization, steeped in a tradition of opacity, exhibited a disinterest in revealing the full scope of its assets and earnings. Despite available statistics, the exact extent of their holdings remains elusive. A minimum of 1.3 million competitors, encompassing a vast array of buildings, land, gardens, and commercial spaces, are believed to exist in the form of endowments across the nation. This astonishing revelation cemented the Awqaf organization’s status as one of the largest landowners in the country, rivaled only by the government itself.
The organization’s holdings encompass substantial portions of cities like Mashhad and Isfahan, owning nearly half of the former and a third of the latter. In addition to these properties, its vast real estate empire is composed of buildings, lands, gardens, and commercial spaces, establishing it as one of the country’s largest landowners.
Instances of Endowment Looting: A Glimpse into the Erosion of Public Assets
The endowment organization, despite amassing substantial wealth under the banner of Waqf, remains deeply entrenched in acts of looting, effectively functioning as a mechanism for Khamenei’s exploitation of resources. Several glaring examples underscore this concerning trend:
1. Damavand Mountain Range – A Pillaging Endeavor:
A plain illustration of the organization’s looting is evident in its appropriation of segments of the Damavand mountain range. Through the acquisition of a waqf document for one of the 11 registration properties spanning from the base to the peak of Damavand, the endowment organization has effectively acquired the rights to a vast expanse of land. Shockingly, this was achieved with a decision from the country’s Supreme Court, sidestepping the perspectives of crucial stakeholders such as the Forestry Organization and pastures. This appropriation has granted the endowment department control over a staggering 18,000 hectares of land.
It is pertinent to note that the lands of Damavand do not inherently fall under the jurisdiction of entities suitable for endowment. Rather, this instance serves as a reflection of Khamenei’s audacious claim that the entirety of Iran is his sole dominion, where he exercises control with little regard for established norms. The Damavand case underscores the organization’s complicity in this appropriation of public resources for personal gain.
2. Hyrcanian Forests – A Pillar of Biodiversity Sacrificed:
Another poignant instance of endowment-driven looting is epitomized by the occupation of the Hyrcanian forests by Khamenei’s endowment. These forests, aged between 25 to 50 million years, hold a connection to the Ice Age and the third geological period, showcasing their unparalleled historical significance. Spanning a vast area of 55,100 square kilometers, the Hyrcanian forests stand as one of the world’s most ancient and pristine woodlands, often regarded as a natural museum of global significance.
The occupation of Hyrcanian forests illustrates a dire consequence of unchecked endowment expansion. This once-pristine ecological haven, revered for its age and ecological value, has been subjected to the relentless appetite for resources driven by this voracious form of looting. The Hyrcanian forests, a symbol of biodiversity and geological history, have fallen victim to the prevailing pattern of unchecked endowment appropriation, with Khamenei’s endowment emerging as a key perpetrator.
The resolute villagers of Aghmashad in Sari have taken a stand against the regime’s systemic looting, boldly confronting regime authorities. This remarkable display of resistance showcases the determination of ordinary people to safeguard their rights in the face of encroachment.
However, the regime’s insatiable appetite for profiteering remains evident in its actions. On August 6, 2023, reports from the regime’s media highlighted the separation of 400 hectares of the precious ‘Imamzadeh Gazou’ forests in Savadkuh, Mazandaran province, under the guise of endowments. This instance perpetuates the concerning trend of exploiting natural resources for personal gains, a practice that stands in stark contrast to the intended communal benefits of endowments.
Further instances of looting have left scars on communities across Iran. In Daniyal village, Matalqo, under the façade of Waqf, the regime’s agents faced resistance from the villagers as they attempted to seize 1,000 hectares of land. Tragically, this confrontation resulted in the loss of two lives and injuries to three individuals as regime agents opened fire on the protesting villagers.
The village of Mehdiabad in Qazvin witnessed a similar attempt at land appropriation by the regime’s endowment administration in 2018. However, the villagers’ resilience thwarted this endeavor.
In Isfahank village, Isfahan province, a sinister scheme to seize lands under the pretext of endowments has emerged, casting further shadows on the integrity of the regime’s actions.
Interestingly, the extensive looting extends to individuals within the regime’s inner circles. One glaring example pertains to Khamushi, where an endowment spanning several hundred hectares named ‘Hosseinieh Aminiha’ in Qazvin province was granted almost freely to Mona Chaichian, Khamushi’s daughter-in-law. This endowment encompasses 150 hectares of land and a livestock farm, including a thousand cattle, and was astonishingly leased to her for a mere 900,000 tomans.
The trail of endowment looting further led to Ahmad Alamolhoda, Khamenei’s representative in Khorasan Razavi province. The colossal ‘Goharshad’ endowment in Mashhad, entrusted to him in 2016, encompasses over a thousand hectares of land within the city and five thousand and 700 ‘Sanddar fields’ in Chenaran. This unchecked appropriation of valuable assets directly contradicts the intended principles of endowments, highlighting the erosion of ethical stewardship.
The exploitation of endowments has reached unparalleled heights, exemplified by the establishment of financial empires from the hallowed endowments of Hazrat Abdulazim’s shrine, under the direct approval of Khamenei himself. This egregious endeavor gave rise to a holding company named Fouad Ray, a colossal entity boasting a staggering 200 subsidiary companies. What’s more astonishing is the breadth of Fouad Ray’s investments, extending even into the oil and gas sector. This vast enterprise eventually fell under the ownership of the regime’s Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order headquarters, painting a distressing picture of endowment misappropriation reaching the highest echelons of authority.
Cleric Mohammad Emami Kashani, a prominent member of the Assembly of Experts, entered the scene with a different yet equally concerning narrative. Under the guise of the property and income rehabilitation institute, he claimed ownership of the endowments of the Sepahsalar school, a maneuver that secured control over four major mines in the nation. This revelation underscores the extent to which endowment exploitation has woven itself into various sectors of the Iranian economy.
The pinnacle of this intricate web of exploitation is Astan Quds Razavi, a financial empire of Khamenei’s making. With a capital and wealth portfolio reaching tens of billions of dollars, Astan Quds Razavi predominantly draws its sustenance from endowments. This financial behemoth’s existence serves as a stark reminder that even institutions with religious and cultural significance are not immune to the lure of profiteering.
The historical transformation of endowments in Iran from a means to alleviate poverty into a vehicle for corruption and looting highlights the erosion of their original purpose. The intertwining of this economic powerhouse with governmental institutions, coupled with a lack of transparency, has fueled its role as a hub of influence and exploitation. Understanding this evolution sheds light on the complex web of control and economic manipulation that has come to characterize the endowment landscape in Iran.