Iran can take fight beyond its borders, Khamenei says in rare sermon

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Revolutionary Guards can take their fight beyond Iran’s borders, the supreme leader said on Friday, responding to the U.S. killing of his country’s most prominent commander and to anti-government unrest at home over the downing of an airliner.

In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told thousands of Iranians who chanted “Death to America!” that European powers could not be trusted in Iran’s nuclear standoff with Washington.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been at the heart of a months-long crisis, which briefly erupted in January into tit-for-tat military strikes between Iran and the United States.

“Resistance must continue until the region is completely freed from the enemy’s tyranny,” Khamenei said, demanding that U.S. troops leave neighboring Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, led to the latest cycle of hostilities between Washington and Tehran, which have been at odds since the 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing in a drone strike on Jan. 3 of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Guards responsible for expanding Iran’s influence abroad. He built up regional militias that Washington has blamed for attacks on U.S. forces.

Iran responded with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, injuring although not killing U.S. troops.

“The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God,” said Khamenei, in a reference to the strikes, adding that the killing of Soleimani showed Washington’s “terrorist nature”.

The Quds Force “protects oppressed nations across the region,” Khamenei said. “They are fighters without borders.”

In the tense aftermath of Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. targets when Iranian forces expected U.S. reprisals, the Guards’ air defenses shot down a Ukrainian airliner in error, killing all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians or dual nationals.

It took days for the Guards, which answer directly to Khamenei, to admit their mistake, even though a commander said he had told the authorities about the cause the same day. The delay sparked protests across Iran, sometimes meeting a violent crackdown.

‘AMERICAN CLOWNS’

Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English to support the demonstrators, drawing a sharp response from Khamenei.

“These American clowns who lie and say they are with the Iranian people should see who the Iranian people are,” he said in his sermon, telling Iranians to unite and show solidarity by turning out in numbers in a February parliamentary election.

Khamenei called for national unity and said Iran’s “enemies” had tried to use the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 to shift attention from the killing of Soleimani.

Most of those on the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain, Sweden and Afghanistan, which all had citizens on the flight, have demanded compensation and a thorough investigation into what happened.

Khamenei described the crash as a tragedy, but stopped short of a direct apology although the Guards and other officials have issued profuse apologies since the incident. The supreme leader also called for steps to ensure there was no repeat.

The funeral of Soleimani, long portrayed as a national hero in Iran but seen by the West as a ruthless adversary, had brought huge numbers of Iranian mourners to the streets.

But scenes of mourning for Soleimani were followed by four days of protests over the plane disaster, when demonstrators chanted “Death to Khamenei” and scrawled it on walls. “Clerics get lost,” they shouted, as protests spread to several cities.

To quell the demonstrations, riot police were sent onto the streets in force, lining up outside universities that were a focus for the protests. Video footage online showed protesters were beaten and also recorded gunshots and blood on the streets.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters and said officers had been ordered to show restraint.

In the bloodiest unrest the country has seen since 1979, Iranian authorities two months ago suppressed protests that erupted over sharp fuel price hikes, which have added to the suffering of ordinary Iranians already hurt by U.S. sanctions.

In reaction to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Tehran has gradually scaled back on commitments to the nuclear deal, including lifting limits on its uranium enrichment.

Britain, France and Germany , which have been trying to salvage the pact, have subsequently launched the deal’s s dispute mechanism over Iran’s violations, starting a diplomatic process that could lead to reimposing U.N. sanctions.

“These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations with Iran are full of deceit,” Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Special Report: Iran’s leader ordered crackdown on unrest – ‘Do whatever it takes to end it’

By Reuters staff

(Reuters) – After days of protests across Iran last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared impatient. Gathering his top security and government officials together, he issued an order: Do whatever it takes to stop them.

That order, confirmed by three sources close to the supreme leader’s inner circle and a fourth official, set in motion the bloodiest crackdown on protesters since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15. The toll, provided to Reuters by three Iranian interior ministry officials, included at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women as well as some members of the security forces and police.

The toll of 1,500 is significantly higher than figures from international human rights groups and the United States. A Dec. 16 report by Amnesty International said the death toll was at least 304. The U.S. State Department, in a statement to Reuters, said it estimates that many hundreds of Iranians were killed, and has seen reports that number could be over 1,000.

The figures provided to Reuters, said two of the Iranian officials who provided them, are based on information gathered from security forces, morgues, hospitals and coroner’s offices.

The government spokesman’s office declined to comment on whether the orders came from Khamenei and on the Nov. 17 meeting. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

What began as scattered protests over a surprise increase in gasoline prices quickly spread into one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

By Nov. 17, the second day, the unrest had reached the capital Tehran, with people calling for an end to the Islamic Republic and the downfall of its leaders. Protesters burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the return of Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the toppled Shah of Iran, according to videos posted on social media and eye witnesses.

That evening at his official residence in a fortified compound in central Tehran, Khamenei met with senior officials, including security aides, President Hassan Rouhani and members of his cabinet.

At the meeting, described to Reuters by the three sources close to his inner circle, the 80-year-old leader, who has final say over all state matters in the country, raised his voice and expressed criticism of the handling of the unrest. He was also angered by the burning of his image and the destruction of a statue of the republic’s late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order,” the supreme leader told the group, one of the sources said.

Khamenei said he would hold the assembled officials responsible for the consequences of the protests if they didn’t immediately stop them. Those who attended the meeting agreed the protesters aimed to bring down the regime.

“The enemies wanted to topple the Islamic Republic and immediate reaction was needed,” one of the sources said.

The fourth official, who was briefed on the Nov. 17 meeting, added that Khamenei made clear the demonstrations required a forceful response.

“Our Imam,” said the official, referring to Khamenei, “only answers to God. He cares about people and the Revolution. He was very firm and said those rioters should be crushed.”

Tehran’s clerical rulers have blamed “thugs” linked to the regime’s opponents in exile and the country’s main foreign foes, namely the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for stirring up unrest. Khamenei has described the unrest as the work of a “very dangerous conspiracy.”

A Dec. 3 report on Iran’s state television confirmed that security forces had fatally shot citizens, saying “some rioters were killed in clashes.” Iran has given no official death toll and has rejected figures as “speculative.”

“The aim of our enemies was to endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic by igniting riots in Iran,” said the commander-in-chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hossein Salami, last month, according to Iranian media.

The Revolutionary Guards declined to comment for this report.

Iran’s interior minister said on Nov. 27 more than 140 government sites had been set on fire along with hundreds of banks and dozens of petrol stations, while 50 bases used by security forces were also attacked, according to remarks reported by Iran’s state news agency IRNA. The minister said up to 200,000 people took part in the unrest nationwide.

“SMELL OF GUNFIRE AND SMOKE”

For decades, Islamic Iran has tried to expand its influence across the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Lebanon, by investing Tehran’s political and economic capital and backing militias. But now it faces pressure at home and abroad.

In recent months, from the streets of Baghdad to Beirut, protesters have been voicing anger at Tehran, burning its flag and chanting anti-Iranian regime slogans. At home, the daily struggle to make ends meet has worsened since the United States reimposed sanctions after withdrawing last year from the nuclear deal that Iran negotiated with world powers in 2015.

The protests erupted after a Nov. 15 announcement on state media that gas prices would rise by as much as 200% and the revenue would be used to help needy families.

Within hours, hundreds of people poured into the streets in places including the northeastern city of Mashhad, the southeastern province of Kerman and the southwestern province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq, according to state media. That night, a resident of the city Ahvaz in Khuzestan described the scene by telephone to Reuters.

“Riot police are out in force and blocking main streets,” the source said. “I heard shooting.” Videos later emerged on social media and state television showing footage of clashes in Ahvaz and elsewhere between citizens and security forces.

The protests reached more than 100 cities and towns and turned political. Young and working-class demonstrators demanded clerical leaders step down. In many cities, a similar chant rang out: “They live like kings, people get poorer,” according to videos on social media and witnesses.

By Nov. 18 in Tehran, riot police appeared to be randomly shooting at protesters in the street “with the smell of gunfire and smoke everywhere,” said a female Tehran resident reached by telephone. People were falling down and shouting, she added, while others sought refuge in houses and shops.

The mother of a 16-year-old boy described holding his body, drenched in blood, after he was shot during protests in a western Iranian town on Nov. 19. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she described the scene in a telephone interview.

“I heard people saying: ‘He is shot, he is shot,’” said the mother. “I ran toward the crowd and saw my son, but half of his head was shot off.” She said she urged her son, whose first name was Amirhossein, not to join the protests, but he didn’t listen.

Iranian authorities deployed lethal force at a far quicker pace from the start than in other protests in recent years, according to activists and details revealed by authorities. In 2009, when millions protested against the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an estimated 72 people were killed. And when Iran faced waves of protests over economic hardships in 2017 and 2018, the death toll was about 20 people, officials said.

Khamenei, who has ruled Iran for three decades, turned to his elite forces to put down the recent unrest — the Revolutionary Guards and its affiliated Basij religious militia.

A senior member of the Revolutionary Guards in western Kermanshah province said the provincial governor handed down instructions at a late-night emergency meeting at his office on Nov. 18.

“We had orders from top officials in Tehran to end the protests, the Guards member said, recounting the governor’s talk. “No more mercy. They are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic. But we will eradicate them.” The governor’s office declined to comment.

As security forces fanned out across the country, security advisors briefed Khamenei on the scale of the unrest, according to the three sources familiar with the talks at his compound.

The interior minister presented the number of casualties and arrests. The intelligence minister and head of the Revolutionary Guards focused on the role of opposition groups. When asked about the interior and intelligence minister’s role in the meeting, the government spokesman’s office declined to comment.

Khamenei, the three sources said, was especially concerned with anger in small working-class towns, whose lower-income voters have been a pillar of support for the Islamic Republic. Their votes will count in February parliamentary elections, a litmus test of the clerical rulers’ popularity since U.S. President Donald Trump exited Iran’s nuclear deal — a step that has led to an 80% collapse in Iran’s oil exports since last year.

Squeezed by sanctions, Khamenei has few resources to tackle high inflation and unemployment. According to official figures, the unemployment rate is around 12.5% overall. But it is about double that for Iran’s millions of young people, who accuse the establishment of economic mismanagement and corruption. Khamenei and other officials have called on the judiciary to step up its fight against corruption.

“BLOOD ON THE STREETS”

Officials in four provinces said the message was clear — failure to stamp out the unrest would encourage people to protest in the future.

A local official in Karaj, a working-class city near the capital, said there were orders to use whatever force was necessary to end the protests immediately. “Orders came from Tehran,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Push them back to their homes, even by shooting them.” Local government officials declined to comment.

Residents of Karaj said they came under fire from rooftops as Revolutionary Guards and police on motorcycles brandished machine guns. “There was blood everywhere. Blood on the streets,” said one resident by telephone. Reuters could not independently verify that account.

In Mahshahr county, in the strategically important Khuzestan province in southwest Iran, Revolutionary Guards in armored vehicles and tanks sought to contain the demonstrations. State TV said security forces opened fire on “rioters” hiding in the marshes. Rights groups said they believe Mahshahr had one of the highest protest death tolls in Iran, based on what they heard from locals.

“The next day when we went there, the area was full of bodies of protesters, mainly young people. The Guards did not let us take the bodies,” the local official said, estimating that “dozens” were killed.

The U.S. State Department has said it has received videos of the Revolutionary Guards opening fire without warning on protesters in Mahshahr. And that when protesters fled to nearby marshlands, the Guards pursued them and surrounded them with machine guns mounted on trucks, spraying the protesters with bullets and killing at least 100 Iranians.

Iran’s authorities dispute the U.S. account. Iranian officials have said security forces in Mahshahr confronted “rioters” who they described as a security threat to petrochemical complexes and to a key energy route that, if blocked, would have created a crisis in the country.

A security official told Reuters that the reports about Mahshahr are “exaggerated and not true” and that security forces were defending “people and the country’s energy facilities in the city from sabotage by enemies and rioters.”

In Isfahan, an ancient city of two million people in central Iran, the government’s vow to help low-income families with money raised from higher gas prices failed to reassure people like Behzad Ebrahimi. He said his 21-year-old nephew, Arshad Ebrahimi, was fatally shot during the crackdown.

“Initially they refused to give us the body and wanted us to bury him with others killed in the protests,” Ebrahimi said. “Eventually we buried him ourselves, but under the heavy presence of security forces.” Rights activists confirmed the events. Reuters was unable to get comment from the government or the local governor on the specifics of the account.

(Editing by Michael Georgy, Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)

‘Get out of Syria,’ Iran tells U.S.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during his visit to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, south of Tehran, Iran, January 30, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Senior Iranian figures said on Wednesday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and American troops should withdraw, as planned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying.

There are fears in the West that Trump’s plan to extricate about 2,000 soldiers from Syria will cede influence to Tehran, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly eight-year war, and also allow Islamic State militants to regroup.

“Now 90 percent of Syrian soil is under the control of the government and the rest will soon be freed by the Syrian army,” Velayati added during a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, according to the Tasnim news agency.

President Hassan Rouhani told Moualem that peace in Syria was a priority. “One of the important regional and foreign policy goals of the Islamic Republic is the stability and complete security of Syria,” Tasnim quoted him as saying.

“And establishing normal conditions in Syria and the return of the people of this country to their normal lives.”

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 over Syria.

Separately, Rear-Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, a deputy commander of the regular armed forces, said on Wednesday that Iran plans to extend the range of its land-to-sea missiles beyond 300 kilometers (186 miles), according to the Fars news agency.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles, in defiance of opposition from the United States and expressions of concern by European countries.

Tehran says the program is purely defensive.

The European Union said on Monday it was gravely concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile launches and tests and urged it to stop activity that deepens mistrust and destabilizes the region.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran displays missile, thousands march in marking 1979 U.S. embassy takeover

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran put a ballistic missile on display as thousands marched on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy, with a senior official accusing President Donald Trump of a “crazy” return to confrontation with Tehran.

Turnout for the annual Iranian street rallies commemorating the embassy takeover, a pivotal event of the Islamic Revolution, appeared higher than in recent years when Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama pursued detente with Tehran.

Last month, Trump broke ranks with European allies, Russia and China by refusing to re-certify Iran’s compliance with its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, reached during Obama’s tenure. Under that deal, most international sanctions on Iran were lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing nuclear activity seen to pose a risk of being put to developing atomic bombs.

Iran has reaffirmed its commitment to the deal and U.N. inspectors have verified Tehran is complying with its terms, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened to “shred” the pact if the United States pulls out.

“All the governments confirm that the American president is a crazy individual who is taking others toward the direction of suicide,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told a rally in Tehran, state media reported.

“Trump’s policies against the people of Iran have brought them out into the streets today,” Shamkhani said.

He did not identify the governments he had in mind. The other parties to the nuclear deal – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – have voiced disquiet at Trump’s opposition to it, fearing this could stir new Middle East instability.

But the Europeans share U.S. concern over Iran’s ballistic missile program and “destabilizing” regional behavior.

 

NOT NEGOTIABLE

Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly said that the Islamic Republic’s missile program is solely defensive in nature and is not negotiable.

In a sign of defiance, a Ghadr ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,240 miles) was put on display near the ex-U.S. embassy in Tehran, now a cultural center, during Saturday’s street demonstration, Tasnim news agency said.

“That America thinks Iran is going to put aside its military power is a childish dream,” said Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of its elite Revolutionary Guards which oversees the missile development, according to Tasnim.

Fars news agency posted pictures of demonstrators nearby burning an effigy of Trump and holding up signs saying “Death to America”.

Iran and the United States severed diplomatic relations soon after the 1979 revolution, during which hardline students seized the embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Shamkhani spoke a few days after Khamenei said the United States was the “number one enemy” of the Islamic Republic.

U.S.-Iranian tensions have risen anew at a time when Tehran has been improving political and military ties with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on Wednesday. Khamenei told him that Tehran and Moscow must step up cooperation to isolate the United States and help defuse conflict in the Middle East.

Iran and Russia are both fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al Assad against rebels, some of them U.S.-backed, and Islamist militants trying to overthrow him.

 

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

After Iran’s nuclear pact, Iranian state firms win most foreign deals

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of Unites States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria

By Yeganeh Torbati, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Babak Dehghanpisheh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When world powers agreed in 2015 to lift sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program, the deal’s supporters in the United States, Europe and Tehran hoped renewed trade and investment could boost Iran’s private sector and weaken the state’s hold on the economy.

But a Reuters review of business accords reached since then shows that the Iranian winners so far are mostly companies owned or controlled by the state, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Of nearly 110 agreements worth at least $80 billion that have been struck since the deal was reached in July 2015, 90 have been with companies owned or controlled by Iranian state entities, the Reuters analysis shows.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Friday, has threatened to scrap the accord, which came into force in January 2016. In Iran, Khamenei and other anti-Western hardliners have repeatedly criticized it because they are concerned it would open the door to Western involvement in Iran’s economy. The accord also promises to dominate Iran’s presidential elections due in May. Khamenei’s criticism has helped hardliners undermine President Hassan Rouhani, who supported the deal, as he tries to win a second term.

No matter what hardliners have said about the nuclear pact, though, the Reuters analysis shows that businesses which answer ultimately to the Supreme Leader stand to gain from it. This could help shield the accord from its Iranian critics, according to one analyst.

“Iran’s leaders have probably calculated that ensuring politically connected businesses benefit from sanctions relief will protect the deal,” said Richard Nephew, a former U.S. negotiator with Iran on the deal and now a scholar at Columbia University.

Officials at Iran’s mission to the United Nations and Rouhani’s office did not respond to requests for comment. No one at Khamenei’s office could be reached.

WINNERS

The Reuters analysis drew on interviews with company officials, statements by Iranian, European and Asian companies, Iranian news reports, ownership data from the Tehran Stock Exchange, filings with Iran’s official company registry and statements by the U.S. Treasury.

Many deals are preliminary agreements with no published financial value. The deals span energy, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, and other key sectors. South Korean, Italian, French, German, and Russian companies have signed the most.

The review found that beneficiaries of the nuclear pact include Setad Ejraiye Farman-e Hazrat-e Emam, also called EIKO, an organization overseen by Khamenei with stakes in nearly every sector of Iran’s economy. It found companies in which entities controlled by Khamenei have a large or majority stake, including those that are part of the economic empire of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have struck at least nine foreign deals worth more than $11 billion in the last 18 months.

Setad said in a statement to Reuters that Iran’s private sector “is reluctant to make large and long-term investments.” Setad and groups like it “create a favorable atmosphere for investment, private-sector development, and the downsizing of the government,” it said. The IRGC declined to comment.

The state dominates Iran’s economy, so state-controlled firms were always likely to win most business after sanctions were lifted. Iranian officials estimate that the private sector makes up only 20 percent of Iran’s economy.

In Iran, “you make money if you’re close to the centers of power,” said Ali Ansari, an Iran scholar at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “The economy hasn’t been restructured or reorganized. You’re recycling wealth through the elite.”

Only 17 deals have gone to private companies, by Reuters’ tally. These include a hotel management pact between France’s AccorHotels and Tourism Financial Group, a large conglomerate. Its chief executive is the brother of Iran’s vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri.

Tourism Financial Group and AccorHotels did not respond to requests for comment on the deal.

Counter to the hopes of supporters of the nuclear accord, the initial wave of investment looks likely to further strengthen the power of the state, including Khamenei, whose power far surpasses Rouhani’s. Supreme Leader since 1989, the cleric controls the judiciary and security forces and the Revolutionary Guards, which direct Iran’s military efforts in Syria and Iraq.

Most sanctions on Iran were lifted under the nuclear accord, so there is no suggestion any partners doing business in the country after the agreement would be breaking any laws.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said the nuclear deal “solves a specific problem, which is making sure that they don’t possess a nuclear weapon … We are not standing in the way of legitimate, permissible business with Iran.”

SUPREME LEADER

Of the 90 deals signed between foreign firms and Iranian state-controlled or state-owned entities, 81 were with companies controlled by Iran’s elected government. These include entities such as the National Iranian Oil Company, large semi-public conglomerates whose top executives are chosen by ministers, and companies owned by government pension funds.

Though Iran holds regular elections and the president has sway over much domestic policy, Khamenei has the final word on state matters, including through his constitutional authority over institutions such as the Guardian Council, which vets candidates hoping to run for office.

Five of the 90 deals went to conglomerates or foundations whose leaders Khamenei directly appoints. These entities – several of which have vast business activities but which Iranian officials have said do not pay full tax – include the religious institution Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, whose economic arm lists 36 subsidiary companies and institutes on its website.

One of them is Razavi Oil and Gas Development Co., which agreed in April to discuss developing a gas field with Saipem, an Italian oil and gas company. A Saipem spokeswoman said it was a preliminary agreement. Officials at Razavi did not respond to requests for comment.

Another winner in this category is Setad. A 2013 investigation by Reuters found Setad built an empire worth about $95 billion on the seizure of thousands of properties belonging to religious minorities, business people, and Iranians living abroad.

In 2013, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Setad, calling it a “major network of front companies controlled by Iran’s leadership.” The nuclear deal lifted sanctions, allowing foreign companies to do business with the conglomerate.

Reuters identified three deals between foreign companies and Setad units, including the proposed construction of a $10 billion oil refinery.

The other two deals were with Barakat Pharmed, a Setad-owned pharmaceutical company. Nasrallah Fathiyan, a Barakat official, told Reuters that Khamenei doesn’t own Barakat, but that “his supervision is basically guiding all of this investment.” Some of Barakat’s profits, Fathiyan said, go to Setad’s charity arm.

Setad said it is independent, and its income goes toward “economic empowerment, building houses for the underprivileged, building schools and cultural centers” and other activities to help the disadvantaged in Iran.

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS

Four of the 90 deals with government entities involve firms in which the Revolutionary Guards have large or controlling stakes. Khamenei, as commander in chief, ultimately controls the IRGC.

Even after the nuclear deal, some U.S. sanctions remain in place. These state that foreign companies which knowingly conduct “significant” transactions with the Revolutionary Guards, or other sanctioned Iranian entities, risk penalties. The sanctions effectively banish those targeted from the global financial system.

However, many companies in which the IRGC has an interest are not blacklisted. Three of the four deals Reuters found with IRGC-linked companies are with non-sanctioned Iranian companies that are wholly or significantly owned by the IRGC. A fourth IRGC company is still on the sanctions list and is indirectly involved in one foreign deal.

Sanctions lawyers say the fine print of the remaining U.S. sanctions allows foreign companies to continue to deal with some IRGC-held firms indirectly.

A Treasury spokeswoman declined comment on individual deals, but said a transaction by foreigners with a company in which the IRGC or another sanctioned entity had a “passive, minority” stake “is not necessarily sanctionable.” The foreign party should ensure the deal does not involve a sanctioned entity, she said.

“At a policy level I think this is a gap that needs to be closed,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official who helped develop sanctions against Iran. “As problematic and troubling as some of these deals may appear to be from a policy perspective, on the face of it, there’s not a strict legal problem.”

(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Stephen Jewkes in Milan, Seoul bureau, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Georgina Prodhan in Frankfurt, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Aizhu Chen in Beijing; Edited by Sara Ledwith and Richard Woods)