A leaked audio file of a secretly recorded conversation between two top figures from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has shed fresh light on a corruption scandal from 2018 that many in the regime were happy to leave in the past.
The file, which was leaked February 13 and has circulated widely since then, records a three-year-old conversation between Mohammad-Ali Jafari -- then commander of the IRGC -- and his economic deputy, Sadegh Zolghadrnia.
It gives new context to events that were in the news in 2018, when reports of major corruption and money laundering at Yas Holding, an IRGC front company established in 2016, were leaked.
The company -- established by a group of influential IRGC and Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commanders -- was found culpable of misappropriating some 130 trillion IRR, worth roughly $1.8 billion at the time.
Yas Holding had the staunch support of the Iranian leader's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, and then IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani, in addition to Jafari and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran mayor at the time.
The company also enjoyed the support of senior IRGC official Hossein Taeb, an influential cleric who has held senior positions in the IRGC for two decades.
Taeb became the commander of the IRGC-aligned Basij Resistance Forces in 2007, and has served as the director of the IRGC's Intelligence Organisation since 2009, appointed by Iran's leader Ali Khamenei.
In 2020, the IRGC's Intelligence Organisation merged with its strategic intelligence department, with Taeb remaining in his directorial position.
Taeb is blacklisted by the United States and prohibited from entering European Union (EU) countries, where his assets are blocked.
This is because "forces under his command participated in mass beatings, murders, detentions and tortures of peaceful protestors" in several mass demonstrations over the past decade, according to the EU.
Yas Holding was widely known as the main arm of the IRGC's "Economic Co-operative Foundation", effectively serving as the IRGC-QF's treasurer.
It held major government assets, and was focused on real estate, also acting as an intermediary in transactions and brokering significant deals. It was shut down in 2018, after reports of the colossal corruption it was embroiled in were leaked.
A few middle managers were detained and received hefty prison sentences as a result of the leak, but first-tier managers and stakeholders, such as Mojtaba Khamenei, Taeb and Ghalibaf were reportedly not even questioned.
Ghalibaf even went on to become Majles (parliament) speaker.
Yet the leak tarnished the reputation of Yas Holding, which was shut down, even as the IRGC's illegitimate activities, rampant corruption and tight control of the country continued unabated.
The IRGC's reputation was such that former president Hassan Rouhani once described it as the "armed government" of Iran.
Leaked audio file
The audio file, documenting a 49-minute conversation between Jafari and Zolghadrnia, was leaked on February 13 and deemed "authentic" by IRGC-affiliated Fars News on February 16.
The conversation between the two men largely focuses on the allocation of money to different parts of the IRGC-QF.
At the time, Jafari already had opponents within the IRGC and Khamenei's office. Shortly after the conversation was recorded, some three years before it was leaked, Jafari was removed from the IRGC command.
Iran's Armed Forces' (Artesh) logistics and preparations division, known as ETKA, has been dominated by the IRGC for many years.
Yet in the leaked file, Zolghadrnia notes that "we [IRGC] should do something about ETKA, since Artesh folks have recently tried to wiggle their way in".
Over the course of their conversation, both men state they want to keep "the entire story" about money and allocations secret.
They talk about the amount of money they owe the public, which they say is 200 trillion IRR, the equivalent of some $10 billion at the time. They also say the government (Rouhani's cabinet) "signs what we need them to sign".
Both talk about the exorbitant amounts of money that most organisations and foundations, including the IRGC, allocate to Khamenei's office every month.
Jafari says "we must obey the leader [Khamenei], and we are doing as he wishes". Then he mentions Khamenei has ordered that 90% of the IRGC's budget must be dedicated to the IRGC-QF, with 10% going to the IRGC.
Both men mention that then-Quds Force commander Soleimani had asked for the amount to be allocated to the Quds Force, and Khamenei approved it.
Promotions as consequences
Despite the blatant corruption revealed in 2018, and the large amounts of money misappropriated by the IRGC, there were few consequences for the key players.
Jafari was fired and given a lesser position as commander of the IRGC's Baghiyyatallah base, whose focus is "cultural and social" rather than purely military.
Zolghadrnia -- who may have secretly recorded the conversation -- was removed from his position, but being close to Ghalibaf, he started working for him when he became Majles speaker.
The punishment meted out to the lower level officials was more fitting for the crime, observers noted -- if the sentences are fully enforced, that is.
Issa Sharifi, Ghalibaf's deputy in Tehran municipality, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and restitution of the bribes he received. Mahmoud Seif, who was the IRGC intelligence's economic deputy, was sentenced to 30 years in prison and the return of property gained by corruption.
Massoud Mehrdadi, deputy economic director of the IRGC Co-operative Foundation, was sentenced to two years in prison.
Rot from the head down
On February 18 of this year, after the leaked file had been circulated far and wide on social media and the story had been picked up by many domestic media outlets, Khamenei addressed it in a speech.
Defending the IRGC, he proclaimed that "the enemy is attempting to slander martyr Soleimani and his reputation".
A number of IRGC, Majles and government members have expressed their support for those named in the audio file, and have attempted to dismiss the file as "insignificant" or "an unfortunate case of infiltration".
The majority of IRGC, Majles and government members are conservative and close to Khamenei, observers noted.
In the Islamic Republic, they said, IRGC and Khamenei-affiliated wrongdoers are rewarded for their crimes -- particularly if they work for the IRGC-QF, which is actively disrupting the region and intervening in other countries' affairs.
According to a Chinese proverb, "Fish rot from the head down."
Likewise, observers said, corruption in Iran starts with the head -- Khamenei -- and descends to the "tail of the fish", or low-level IRGC and IRGC-affiliated officials.