Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TEHRAN — The international crisis over the seizure of 15 British sailors and marines has been overshadowed in Iran by the arrest of a high-profile financial criminal, whose case has exposed corruption and fiscal mismanagement in the upper ranks of the Islamic Republic.

The capture of the British service members near the Iran-Iraq border in the Persian Gulf has barely registered in the country, where ministries, newspapers and even some border posts are closed for Norooz, a two-week Persian new year holiday.

But there has been no shortage of attention in the press to the case of Shahram Jazayeri-Arab, the multimillionaire son of a cleric who escaped from a Tehran prison last month only to be recaptured a week ago.

“It’s a case that has everything in it,” said 20-year-old university student Hooman Shirzadeh. “Financial corruption, insider dealings, power, a daring escape. No wonder the whole country is gripped.”

Mr. Jazayeri-Arab, whose wealth is estimated at $180 million, belongs to a new aristocracy that has moved into North Tehran’s upscale neighborhoods once populated by supporters of the shah before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Its members, known as the “aghazadeh” or “offspring of the respected ones,” compose an elite class of well-connected and trusted regime insiders with access to the highest levels of government.

Mr. Jazayeri-Arab, 35, was arrested in 2001 on charges related to corruption, illegal exports, bribery, forgery and a massive embezzlement of state funds and assets. At his trial, it emerged that he had made large cash payments to members of parliament to influence their decisions.

Sentenced to 27 years in prison, Mr. Jazayeri-Arab reportedly was provided with a laptop computer and two cell phones and granted several home leaves, providing evidence to a disgruntled public of preferential treatment for the regime’s fallen sons.

That impression was reinforced by courtroom photos, which showed the defendant smiling smugly and making humorous faces behind his guards’ backs. In jail, he was reportedly allowed to continue managing his considerable foreign investments.

Mr. Jazayeri-Arab escaped on Feb. 22, and the talk in Tehran’s bazaar is that he bribed his guards, who are under investigation. The prison warden and two judges who had been investigating economic corruption in the defendant’s case have since been dismissed by Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi.

Mr. Jazayeri-Arab was recaptured in an unspecified Persian Gulf country — possibly the United Arab Emirates or Oman — just before the new year holiday.

The Iranian government portrayed the arrest as proof of its long reach, but in conspiratorial-minded Iran, it was not long before competing theories emerged.

According to a report Friday on the Farsi-language Baztab news site, Mr. Jazayeri-Arab was handed over to Iran by the German government in exchange for a German citizen who was jailed in Iran on spying charges. The German Foreign Ministry denied the report.

“Catching the escaped Shahram was [the Iranian government’s] way of taking personal revenge,” said a Tehran-based analyst, who requested anonymity while discussing a sensitive subject.

“It allowed the Ministry of Intelligence to remove a series of people who they didn’t want to have in place and show that they remain as strong as ever. Just like the seizure of the British soldiers, it was a propaganda maneuver.”

The saga has been engrossing for working Iranians who have endured a generation of war, a weak economy and international alienation while watching the likes of Mr. Jazayeri-Arab rise to wealth. Yet there has been considerable popular sympathy for the prisoner, who is widely referred to by his first name, Shahram.

“Everyone around the world likes rich people,” suggested Ali Vahid, the owner of several tabloid magazines and himself the son of a cleric, by way of explanation.

“The support of Jazayeri-Arab is very aspirational. He was incredibly rich, had foreign bank accounts, factories — and naturally this attracted ordinary people.”

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