June 4, 2007


Inside Iran's Holy Money Machine (ANDREW HIGGINS, 6/02/07, Wall Street Journal)

The Shrine of Imam Reza, a sumptuous parade of mosques, minarets and marble courtyards, is vaster than Vatican City. It draws more Muslim pilgrims than even Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in Saudi Arabia.

Each year, more than 12 million Iranians, Iraqis and other Shiite Muslims journey to the shrine here in northeast Iran to pay homage to Imam Reza, a revered ninth-century martyr. All come to pray before his tomb -- and many to stuff bank notes in a gold-and-silver cage that protects his ancient bones.

The shrine has for centuries intermingled faith and money, collecting donations of cash, land, jewelry and works of art from the devout. Today, it is not only Iran's most sacred religious site but also, by some reckonings, the Islamic republic's biggest and richest business empire.

Companies in its corporate portfolio make everything from city buses to pizza strudels to growth hormones for caviar-producing sturgeon. At the same time, it operates an Islamic-studies center and boasts a huge collection of Qurans. No-smoking signs at its sanctuary read, "This is the flight zone of angels. Don't pollute it with smoke."

"We are an Islamic conglomerate," says Mehdi Azizian, business adviser and brother-in-law of Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, the shrine's 73-year-old chief. "We don't expect anyone to understand everything we do, because it is so big."

The dual role of the Imam Reza Shrine helps explain how the power of Iran's aging clerical elite endures, nearly three decades after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "Money is power, and the mullahs...dominate some important parts of the Iranian economy," says Thierry Coville, a French expert on Iran's economy and author of a recent book on Iran.

The Imam Reza Shrine is part of a cluster of bonyads, nominally charitable foundations with huge holdings acquired through generations of donations or confiscated after the revolution. They publish no accounts and, in most cases, answer only to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This status gives bonyads an independent authority outside Iran's formal state bureaucracy and checks the power of elected officials, whether Western-minded reformers or populist zealots like the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On the one hand, the Islamic Republic has defused power so well that, while obviously repressive in some regards, no institution can really exert the sort of uniform force that totalitarianism (or even effective authoritarianism) requires. On the other, at some point coherent governance and the development of your country requires sufficient concentration in some body. They're basically in their Articles of Confederation phase.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2007 4:11 PM


"Articles of Confederation stage" offers a great 'explanatory' angle that should be built upon.

Can you think of a good essay or two that effectively take people down that path (assuming you are correct)?

Posted by: Bruno at June 4, 2007 5:06 PM

Herbert Storing was the great historian of the Anti-Federalists and what he wrote of them is profound:

[W]e shall also find, at the very heart of the Anti-Federal position, a dilemma or a tension. This is the critical weakness of Anti-Federalist
thought and at the same time its strength and even its glory. For the Anti-Federalists could neither fully reject nor fully accept the leading
principles of the Constitution. They were indeed open to Hamilton's charge of trying to reconcile contradictions. This is the element of truth
in Cecelia Kenyon's characterization of them as men of little faith. They did not fail to see the opportunity for American nationhood that the
Federalists seized so gloriously, but they could not join in the grasping of it. They doubted; they held back; they urged second thoughts.
This was not however a mere failure of will or lack of courage. They had reasons, and the reasons have weight. They thought--and it can not
be easily denied--that this great national opportunity was profoundly problematical, that it could be neither grasped nor let alone without risking
everything. The Anti-Federalists were committed to both union and the states; to both the great American republic and the small, self-governing
community; to both commerce and civic virtue; to both private gain and public good. At its best, Anti-Federal thought explores these tensions
and points to the need for any significant American political thought to confront them; for they were not resolved by the Constitution but are
inherent in the principles and traditions of American life.


To some considerable extent the Federalists (who were anti-federal) were right about the need for a strong national government at the Founding, but the Anti-federalists (who were federalists) were right about the dangers inherent in a strong national government. Our Federalists won because the Articles had worked so poorly. Iran is likely to undergo the same evolution with the additional element of needing Separation to succeed.

Posted by: oj at June 4, 2007 7:51 PM

Except that the Muslim inclination to submit is profoundly un-American.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 4, 2007 9:01 PM

This was a fascinating piece and I'm glad you linked to it.

I don't think diffuse (defuse?) is quite the word you are looking for - it is more Cosa Nostra over there than anything else. But it is an ad hoc thing, with each gang pushing for what it wants (within the limits of its ability, to be sure).

Doesn't this mosque (really it's a city by itself, or a company town) remind you a tiny bit of the Church, circa 1500? Or of OPEC or the diamond trade?

Separation, indeed.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 4, 2007 9:49 PM

The gangs don't matter--it's the structure itself that precludes centralized power.

2 : not concentrated or localized

Posted by: oj at June 4, 2007 9:53 PM

To the contrary, democracy and religion make Americans uniquely conformist/submissive.

Posted by: oj at June 4, 2007 9:56 PM

It's true that we are not exactly the rugged individualists of our national myth. But it's also true that we are suspicious and resentful of centralized authority. Including, for the majority of us, centralized religious authority. Muslims seem to be quite different.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 4, 2007 11:06 PM

Millions of us revere the Pope. Islam has no comparable authority. It doesn't even have a Billy Graham.

The reason we have the world's biggest jail population is because we require submission to authority. Of course, our authority in that regard is ourselves, which is the essence of republican liberty.

Posted by: oj at June 5, 2007 6:24 AM

Circle closed.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 5, 2007 10:58 AM

Aside from the gangster meme, how much of the money is funding terror around the world?

The 'comglomerates' gives Ahmadinejad and Khameini et al. plausible deniability, plus a ready source of cash for just about any trouble they want to cook up.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 5, 2007 5:20 PM