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Iranian Poverty Fund Bankrolls Fun Parks And Much More

Foundation controls two-thirds of all goods sold in Iran

MOHSEN RAFIQDOOST has one of the safest jobs in the world - despite corruption allegations. He personally controls an estimated $12 billion worth of investments and only one person has the power to fire him: the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

General Rafiqdoost is the managing director of Iran's Foundation of the Oppressed, a nominally charitable organization designed to redistribute the country's wealth among its poorer classes. Its task is to fund university programs, build cheap housing, and provide affordable medical care for the nation's poor. ``The foundation should relieve the general wounds of society and act as an assistant to the government,'' reads a sign outside the foundation's Tehran headquarters.

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Touching every Iranian life

In reality, the foundation, one of several known as bonyads, has become a huge investment vehicle, the most powerful economic organization in Iran outside the government. Rafiqdoost says he controls some 1,200 companies in industries from agriculture and mining to textiles and tourism. An estimated two-thirds of all products sold in Iran pass through the foundation's hands. ``We touch the lives of every Iranian,'' he beams during an interview.

The Foundation of the Oppressed owns several five-star hotels and is even building a Disneyland-style amusement park in Tehran, ``so large you can go one day at the weekend and not finish seeing all of it,'' says Karim Sobhani, Rafiqdoost's adviser on international affairs.

Rafiqdoost took over the fund after commanding Iran's Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. He reports annually to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Khamenei, the head of Iran's Islamic clergy, but his reports are closed from public scrutiny.

Based on the fortune of the last Shah's Pahlavi Foundation, seized during Iran's 1978-1979 Islamic revolution, the fund has begun to expand overseas, pulling in annual profits of 570 billion rials ($211 million) last year on an asset base estimated at $12 billion. In the last year, it has bought a ceramics mine in Tanzania and begun work on a $35 million highway project in Pakistan. It has won export deals from European automobile firms and taken a large slice of the consumer-goods market in several former Soviet republics.

Last September, however, the majlis (parliament) began to investigate allegations of corruption and mismanagement among the foundation's top officials. Some 120,000 poor and disabled from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war fall under Rafiqdoost's protection, but disabled groups accuse bonyad officials of devoting inadequate funds to their needs.

Informed Iranians say the inquiry will target middle management, but few believe that Rafiqdoost, who drove Ayatollah Khomeini through Tehran on his triumphal return from Paris in 1979, will be forced to quit. ``The majlis announced this investigation last September,'' said a senior newspaper editor in Tehran, ``but it's all been hushed up since then. The financial corruption is terrible, but I don't think anything will be done. Rafiqdoost is too well connected with the leadership.''

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Rafiqdoost cites the money spent on the poor in his defense. ``Before my arrival, there was not much profit and not much spent on the war victims,'' he says. ``In fact, the bonyad was in debt. We invested and really enhanced what we gave away.''

Rafiqdoost admits to firing several score employees for embezzlement but is convinced that most accusations are politically inspired. ``It is because we are related to the political leadership,'' he says.

But many analysts hold that Rafiqdoost's interests go beyond helping the poor of Iran. Western security sources believe the bonyads are used by Iran's religious authorities as deniable vehicles to finance anything from the pro-Iranian Hizbollah faction in Lebanon to the bounty on the head of ``Satanic Verses'' author Salman Rushdie. The Foundation of the Oppressed has been accused of sidestepping a Western embargo on high-technology exports to Iran; some say it may be scouting the former Soviet Union for weapons and even nuclear technology.

Money for political ends

In a country where economic information is as sensitive as military secrets, few know the true state of the foundation's operations. Allegations of political involvement are difficult to prove.

``There is bonyad money going to Lebanon, for sure,'' said one source in Iran, ``but you won't find a trace of it in Tehran.''

``Look, the bonyad works in harmony with the government,'' explained Rafiqdoost. ``At times we go to their aid.'' When Hashemi Rafsanjani's government lifted some subsidies on basic foodstuffs, he said, the president asked him to import goods to increase domestic supplies. Rafiqdoost takes pride that his foundation was able to stabilize prices by importing chickens, iron, rice, and cooking oil.

The foundations are a favorite target of criticism. But many Iranians are waiting to see if the parliamentary inquiry will insist on at least some public accountability.

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