A Bazaari's World

To understand Iran—and perhaps even the future of other parts of the Islamic world—one must understand a man like Mohsen Rafiqdoost
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I asked Rafiqdoost about the financial particulars of the Bonyad, the Foundation of the Oppressed, whose 1,200 companies are involved in mining, housing construction, transportation, hotels, and tourism. In 1993, Rafiqdoost said, the Bonyad made a profit of 250 billion rials, or, in 1993 terms, roughly $100 million. "The first part of our profits go for the victims of the Shah and the wounded in the eight-year war with Iraq. The second part is for high schools in poor areas, for public-health clinics, for clothes for five hundred thousand needy students. The third part is for reinvesting."

I did not doubt the foundation's commitment to the needy and the war wounded. The amputee who operated the elevator that took me up to Rafiqdoost's office was only one of a number of handicapped young men I saw working there. But the Foundation of the Oppressed, as the largest holding company in an oil-producing country of about 65 million people, has gargantuan amounts of real estate, cash, and other assets. It is a state within a state. The foundation's headquarters, where I met with Rafiqdoost, consists of three new office towers of polished white stone; I had to pass through two heavily guarded checkpoints in order to enter the complex. It was more impressive than any government ministry I saw in Tehran.

Were the amputees who were employed inside, along with the charity work and the whole aura of do-goodism exemplified by the foundation's very name, merely façades—like the milk factory that was thought to be a cover for a chemical-weapons facility in Iraq? Was the foundation's emphasis on helping the "oppressed" the tactical equivalent of putting a terrorists' training facility near a school or hospital, as was done in Lebanon?

I asked myself such cynical questions because the Foundation of the Oppressed and other revolutionary foundations established with the Shah's money are answerable only to the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, to whose home Rafiqdoost says he goes to pray. Iran's elected President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has little control over the foundation's activities. The ability of the Central Bank of Iran to tax the foundation, or to monitor its foreign-currency flows—let alone audit its activities—is close to nil. In the view of a Washington-based analyst, "Rafiqdoost is a New Age bazaari, with few of the redeeming virtues of his forefathers. He is a mobster-trader: a dark, rootless master monopolist." Who can say to what groups in the Middle East and elsewhere Rafiqdoost may be sending checks? Rafiqdoost and Khameneh'i can. Khameneh'i's photograph hangs in a large and ornate gold frame in Rafiqdoost's office, next to a similarly framed photograph of Imam Khomeini. Conspicuous by its absence is a picture of President Rafsanjani, whose cabinet includes American-educated technocrats who for years have tried unsuccessfully, because of insufficient political clout, to move Iran closer to the West.

But the possibility that Rafiqdoost is operating a financial and logistical clearinghouse for international terrorism was less intriguing to me than the possibility that the Foundation of the Oppressed represents a new kind of economic organization in a new kind of emerging state. Such a state will be well suited to the porous borders and the political chaos of the region. The empire to Iran's north, the Soviet Union, has collapsed, bringing into existence a collection of weakly governed fiefdoms in Central Asia; the state to the east, Afghanistan, has disintegrated into landlocked emirates based on drug trafficking; the state to the west, Iraq, an artificial construct of European colonialism, is a veritable penitentiary facing eventual explosion and possible collapse; and the state to the northwest, Turkey, is engaged in a violent struggle between Turks and Kurds over the ethnic duality of its Anatolian land mass.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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