The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed Parviz Fattah last week as the new head of the Mostazafan Foundation, a pillar of Khamenei’s $200 billion business empire. Fattah is increasingly likely to become the standard-bearer for the regime’s ultra-hardline “principlist” faction in the 2021 presidential contest.
The Mostazafan Foundation is one of three main business conglomerates, or bonyads, directly controlled by Khamenei. Fattah’s appointment to run the bonyad shows the increasing confidence the supreme leader has in him, strengthening Fattah’s position within Khamenei’s circle of confidants.
Fattah, a 58-year-old engineer, joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1980 after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and quickly rose through the ranks to assume command and managerial positions. After the war, Fattah continued his career at the Treasury-designated Khatam-al-Anbiya Construction Base, an economic arm of the IRGC deeply involved, along with its subsidiaries, in nuclear and missile projects. After capturing the presidency in 2005, the Holocaust-denying extreme hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought Fattah out of relative obscurity by tapping him as minister of energy. Fattah served until 2009, when he sided with Khamenei amidst growing tensions between the president and supreme leader. After leaving the cabinet, Fattah became CEO for six years of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, another Treasury-designated economic arm of the IRGC that formed a key part of its proliferation network. In that position, Fattah managed tens of billions of dollars of assets and expanded the Guard’s business empire. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned both Fattah and the Foundation in 2010.
In 2013, some principlists asked Fattah to run for president, but he declined. Two years later, Khamenei appointed Fattah as the head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, a massive social welfare entity under the direct control of the supreme leader. The committee had a reputation for mismanagement and for serving as a tool of its founders’ political faction. Through new appointments, he succeeded in dissociating the Committee from its founders and improving its public image.
In a symbolic act, he relocated the Committee from a luxury building in the affluent northern part of Tehran to a modest building in an impoverished southern district. According to Fattah, the Committee supports 4.8 million low-income Iranians, or about six percent of the population. In effect, it buys loyalty to the regime and to the supreme leader. Under Fattah’s leadership, the Committee significantly expanded its cooperation with the IRGC.
Khamenei likely wants Fattah to reshape the Mostazafan Foundation’s image the way he did that of the Committee. Mostazafan has seven billion euro in annual revenue and tens of billions of dollars in real estate assets, but has struggled with corruption and mismanagement. In a country beset with incompetent managers, Fattah is probably the IRGC’s most successful administrator. Despite the regime’s rampant corruption, Fattah has cultivated an image as a man of the people.
In 2017, pro-Khamenei groups once again urged Fattah to run for the presidency, but he again refused. As Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s current president and the principlists’ main political rival, approaches the end of his second term, the principlists need a candidate who can retake the administration. Fattah’s modest style of living, obedience to Khamenei, deep connection to the IRGC, years of service to the poor, and managerial experience make him a formidable candidate. If he runs, Fattah will wrap himself in Ahmadinejad’s populist mantle. At the same time, he will pose a far more dangerous adversary for the West since he will not sow division at home. Think of him as the new and improved Ahmadinejad.
Saeed Ghasseminejad is an Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Saeed on Twitter @SGhasseminejad. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.