The custodians of Mashhad’s Imam Reza Shrine have turned the pilgrimage site into a political money machine.
Astan Quds Razavi (AQR) is a bonyad, or charitable foundation, that manages an eponymous shrine in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. Unlike other bonyads, which were founded as a consequence of the 1979 Revolution, AQR’s institutional history dates back to the Qajar period, when it functioned as a waqf managing religious donations to the Mashhad shrine.1 AQR’s influence grew alongside the shrine’s popularity. As one of the most important Shia monuments in Iran, it drew over 34 million pilgrims last year.
After the Revolution, AQR competed with other bonyads to swallow up controlling shares of lucrative industries. Though it behaved like a bonyad in the sense that it was a predatory parastatal conglomerate overseen by the Office of the Supreme Leader (Beyt-e Rahbari), it had a separate legal structure.2 Today, AQR owns one in ten acres of land in Khorasan Razavi Province. It is the largest non-state landowner in Iran and, by some accounts, the largest owner of land endowments in the world.3
The AQR Empire: 6 Major Holdings, 351 Companies
AQR controls many of its companies through a subsidiary, Razavi Economic Organization (REO). The REO controls six major holdings in the following sectors:
- Construction and Civil Engineering
- Health and Medicine
- Financial Support and Services
- Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Conversion industries
- Real Estate
Largest Landowner in the Middle East
One in ten acres of land in Khorasan Razavi Province is owned by AQR. In Khorasan Razavi alone, REO controls 262,000 acres of land. In the past 15 years, AQR has expanded its traditional sphere of influence. As of 2005, it was active in only three cities, including Mashhad. Today, AQR owns property in at least 8 provinces and 13 cities, including Tehran:
- Mashhad: Districts 1 and 2
- Isfahan Province
- Fars Province
- Qouchan: Faruj country and Shirvan city
- Guilan Province
- Kashmar : Khalilabad city and Bardaskan city
- Torbat Heydariyeh
- Fariman: Torbat Jam and Taybad cities
- Esfarayen: Bojnord and Jajarm cities
- Golestan Province
- Mazandaran Province
- Neyshabur: Sabzevar city
- Tehran: Concrete factory in Varamin, two 350 square meter offices in Tehran
- Yazd Province
- Kerman Province
- Semnan Province: Damghan city
- Chenaran City
$230 Million of State Debt
The exact size of AQR’s multi-billion-dollar empire is shrouded in opacity, as is the case with all major bonyads. In the most recent government budget from this year, the Iranian state acknowledges a debt of approximately $230 million to AQR. That’s roughly equivalent to the starting share capital of Iran’s largest bank. (Eghtesad Novin, Iran’s largest bank in terms of clients, was founded in 2004 with 2 trillion IRR, or $200 million at the time.) As with other major bonyads, whose combined annual national budget lines well exceed Iran’s GDP, we use this figure to illustrate the scale to which the government is financially beholden to AQR while the latter remains unregulated and unaccountable to state institutions.
AQR’s Sources of Income:
- Direct donations to the Razavi Shrine
- Museums—the Razavi Shrine includes several museums that display priceless Qurans, carpets, rugs, textiles, clocks, stamps, paper money and coins, medals, paintings, shells, and dishes
- Endowments in the form of factories, companies, and real estate
- Renting out endowed properties, stores, shopping malls, etc.
- Companies operated by REO
- Millions of dollars received from the government
- Religious tax (Khoms and Zakkat)
- Hotels and motels for pilgrims visiting the shrine.
- Imam Reza Stadium (the sixth largest stadium in Iran)
- Several bazaars, including the famous Imam Reza bazaar in Mashhad
AQR and the Supreme Leader
AQR enjoys tax-exempt status, which means not even the government is allowed to access its financial records. The bonyad’s sole overseer is Beyt-e Rahbari. Public records reveal that Mofid Rahbar, the Beyt-e Rahbari accounting firm, oversees the books of 28 AQR subsidiaries. Aside from his stint as custodian of AQR, president-elect Ebrahim Raisi was also a trustee of Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO), another major bonyad overseen exclusively by Beyt-e Rahbari. Appointed by Khamenei, Raisi also previously served as a trustee of AQR for ten years.
Raisi headed AQR from 2016 until 2019, when he was appointed chief of Iran’s judiciary. This was a short stint compared to that of his predecessor, Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabbasi, under whose 35-year patronage the organization grew from a small charitable foundation into a predatory conglomerate. Raisi is the son-in-law of cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda, a Mashhad Friday prayer leader and Assembly of Experts representative closely linked to AQR. While Alamolhoda did not openly endorse his son-in-law for president from the Friday prayer podium, he made use of Raisi’s campaign talking points during his sermon and added that anyone who invites the people to boycott the election is an apostate.4
AQR’s Political Business Empires
The AQR bonyad appears frequently in the public records we consult in our investigations. A politician and board member of one of its companies is linked to a recent scandal involving toxic pharmaceuticals. Raisi himself was accused of misusing AQR resources to fund his 2017 presidential campaign. As AQR custodian, Raisi also denied the bonyad’s documented ownership links to a subsidiary responsible for environmental degradation.
Raisi ran unsuccessfully for president in the 2017 election, when he came in second behind incumbent Hassan Rouhani. In the run-up to the election, several media outlets alleged that Raisi diverted funds and political resources from AQR to fund his campaign.5 Others pointed out Raisi’s use of AQR-owned newspaper Quds as his campaign mouthpiece.6
During Raisi’s tenure, AQR was involved in at least two corruption scandals: The first was environmental degradation. Caspian Forest Development Company, an AQR subsidiary, came under public scrutiny in 2017 for illegal logging in the Caspian Sea region.7 Under pressure from the public and media, Raisi issued a statement that the company had been privatized, denying AQR’s responsibility for the illegal activities.8 Raisi’s statement contradicts publicly accessible beneficial ownership data, which shows that Caspian Forest Development Company board members have not changed since 2013.
In the second case, AQR features in a network of pharmaceutical companies and government regulators charged with financial corruption, misuse of public funds, and importation of expired pharmaceuticals. In 2019, high-ranking officials at Iran’s Food and Drug Administration were accused of negligently licensing a hypertension-treating drug deemed carcinogenic by international watchdogs. The FDA’s director, Mohammad Reza Shahenaz, is linked to several bonyad-linked drug companies, which is a clear conflict of interest. He is on the board of the Astan Quds Razavi–owned Samen Pharmaceutical company.
Aside from being the largest landowner and operating key infrastructure and power lines, AQR controls pivotal public services in Razavi Khorasan Province.
- FINANCE: AQR announced plans last year to create an interest-free loans bank, or qard al-hassan. According to its organizational charts, AQR also owns an insurance brokerage and a currency exchange office.
- MEDIA: AQR operates the following media organizations: Astan News, Razavi Photo, Razavi Film, Razavi Radio, Shrine magazine, the Razavi Mobile app, Divar Razavi online classifieds, Razavi Multimedia, Razavi Kids, Beh Nashr publishing house, and Quds newspaper.
- EDUCATION: AQR owns two universities: Imam Reza International University and Razavi University of Islamic Sciences.
Other Tehran Bureau Investigations Featuring AQR:
Conservative Tehran MP Seyyed Nezamoldin Mousavi was communications and media deputy for AQR from 2017 to 2020. There are no reports on whether or not he retained his AQR position after his election to the Majles last year.
The Beyt-e Rahbari accountancy Mofid Rahbar oversees 28 AQR companies.
Industrialist Reza Motallebi Kashani, whose vast network of contacts includes elite IRGC members and prominent politicians, was recently appointed a trustee of Astan Quds Razavi, according to Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). Kashani was accused of bribery in a recent scandal.
- Ali A. Saeidi (2004), “The Accountability of Para-governmental Organizations (Bonyads): The Case of Iranian Foundations,” Iranian Studies, 37:3, 479–98, DOI: 10.1080/0021086042000287541.
- Astan Quds Razavi is legally defined as a “public benefit” (عام المنفعه) institution, according to a 1989 regulation.
- Andrew Higgins, “Inside Iran’s Holy Money Machine,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2007; “مجله معارف اسلامی تابستان سال ۱۳۸۸ شماره ۷۶، ۲۰۰۹,”
آستان قدس رضوی، بزرگ ترین موقوفه جهان (Hawzah.net), Summer 2009.
- “جدول: بررسی شعارهای لاریجانی؛ رئیسی و جهانگیری,” Alef News, May 22, 2021.
- For more on this, see “شائبه استفاده تبلیغاتی رئیسی از آستان قدس,” Ensaf News, Apr. 18, 2017;
“توزیع نبات و پارچه سبز سنت آستان قدس است/ رئیسی آماده مناظره با روحانی است,” Iranian Students’ News Agency, May 13, 2017.
- “راستیآزمایی مناظره سوم؛ کدام ادعاها درست بود؟,” BBC Persian, May 12, 2017.
- “آیا بهرهبرداری از جنگلهای شمال کشور توسط شرکت زیر مجموعه آستان قدس ادامه دارد؟,” Khabargozari Kar Iran (ILNA), May 10, 2017.
- “توضیح آستان قدس رضوی درباره بهرهبرداری از جنگلهای شمال کشور,” Mehr News, May 15, 2017.
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