In the Middle East

Setad: The Ayatollah’s Assets


In recent months, after years without formal diplomatic relations, the once frigid relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran began to thaw. Analysts have speculated that the shift in Iranian policy is the result of crippling economic sanctions placing sufficient pressure on the newly elected, moderate-seeming President Hassan Rouhani. However, a recent report by Reuters points to another possibility.

Following a six-month investigation, Reuters has shined a light on a once little-known business juggernaut under the Supreme Leader’s control that has amassed billions of dollars in illegal seizures and acquisitions since Iran’s revolution in 1979. Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam (Setad) or the “Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam,” first evolved from an edict in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

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The multi-sector conglomerate was initially created in the wake of the revolution to locate, manage and sell properties deemed abandoned by the new regime. For many Iranians, especially those within the nation’s vast diaspora, the organization is a terrifying mystery. When it was first established, proceeds were to go to assist Iran’s war veterans, widows and the most impoverished. Instead, the organization built its empire through the illegal seizure of thousands of properties and valuables from Iranians living abroad (or those who fled during the revolution), members of religious minority groups as well as any Iranian citizen they deemed to be a threat to the new regime.

Very little is known of the company, which, according to Reuters, has holdings in real estate as well as corporate stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry estimated to be valued at over $95 billion USD.[1] Controlled by Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the organization isn’t overseen by Iran’s parliament nor can be questioned by any supervisory organization in the country. Through its continuous revenue stream, Setad has been integral to Khamenei and his ability to maintain control over the country by providing him with the financial means necessary to remain independent from Iran’s parliament and national budget.

In 2006, as Western powers increased multilateral sanctions on the nation, Khamenei’s Setad only continued to expand by acquiring holdings in major banks, brokerage firms, insurance companies, power plants, energy and construction firms, refineries, cement companies and soft drink manufacturers. The sanctions, ideally meant to target Iran’s middle-class, instead put Iran’s Rial into hyperinflation mode and gave rise to the unemployed and impoverished. Simultaneously, these sanctions did little to impact Setad, which by now had become an economic juggernaut. Thus, while multilateral sanctions increased pressures on Iran’s already fragile economy, the conglomerate only continued to gain control and remain unscathed. It wasn’t until 2010, that the European Union first included the organization and its president, Mohammad Mokhber, in a list of sanctioned entities. Although the organization was removed from the sanctions list one year later, the U.S. Treasury Department added Setad and 37 subsidiaries overseen by the company to its list of sanctions in June 2013. Within months, Iranian delegates began to consider open communications with the Western Powers and the “democratically-elected” president Hassan Rouhani was presumed to represent Iran’s olive branch to the West.

Little is known and understood about Iran’s Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader, who has maintained an iron fist over the country for nearly a quarter-century. Yet, as Iran’s outcries for communication and access to the Western world continue to gain volume, it is clear that targeted sanctions against the assets of the Ayatollah must be maintained. Without it, there will only be an increase of pressure against an isolated population already reeling from the impacts of the West’s multilateral sanctions with no ability to fight back.


[1] Reuters, base this estimate on an independent analysis of statements, data from Tehran’s Stock Exchange, company websites as well as some information provided by the U.S. Treasury Department.