Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.


Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.


In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Wall Street holiday parties are back…but don’t tell anyone

A holiday decoration is seen over Wall St. sign outside the New York Stock Exchange,

By Lawrence Delevingne and Olivia Oran

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wall Street holiday parties this year took place in luxury venues like the Waldorf Astoria, featured women dressed as glowing angels, and had fine wine, scotch and bourbon on hand.

But organizers of the soirées, conscious of tighter budgets and public scrutiny, are not eager to discuss the merriment.

Big financial firms started curtailing year-end bashes in 2008 as taxpayer bailouts, populist outrage and weak profits created an environment where lavish celebrations were frowned upon. Some investment banks stopped sponsoring corporate holiday parties altogether, advising individual teams to use their own budgets for more intimate gatherings.

Catering managers and event planners said that while holiday party spending is still down relative to its pre-financial crisis peak, Wall Street is starting to come back on the scene.

“It’s a more optimistic climate,” said Bill Spinner, director of catering at The Pierre, a Taj Hotel in New York.

The number of Wall Street firms with holiday events at The Pierre was steady this year, he said, but more people attended.

Other planners said the atmosphere was lighter in 2016, with winter wonderland and carnival themes featuring such flourishes as giant snow globe photobooths and game stations.

A Reuters review of the financial industry holiday scene found parties sponsored by Credit Suisse Group AG, Bank of New York Mellon Corp, Moelis & Co, BlackRock Inc, Blackstone Group LP, KKR & Co LP, Apollo Global Management Inc, PIMCO, AQR Capital Management LP, Bain Capital, York Capital Management LLC and Chilton Investment Management, among others.

Employees enjoyed themselves at swanky venues in New York, London, Boston, Chicago, Southern California, Sydney and Wroclaw, Poland, according to attendees and Instagram photos.

Representatives of some firms said they were reticent to discuss the parties because they have tried to keep such events out of the news since the financial crisis. One argued his firm’s party was more austere than in prior years, and that festive Instagram photos with ostentatious hashtags misrepresented it. Others declined to comment at all.

B. Allan Kurtz, managing director at New York events venue Gotham Hall, which hosts about half a dozen Wall Street holiday gatherings each year, said the standard budget is $100,000 to $200,000.

Spending is similar to what it was in the years leading up to the crisis but then the money went further, Kurtz said. It works out to about 20 percent more than today’s dollars adjusted for inflation. One expensive feature that has been absent since 2008 is a hired celebrity entertainer or singer.

Private-equity firm KKR used Gotham Hall for its party, which Kurtz declined to comment on.

Whatever they spend, most firms want to keep their events out of the public eye, he said. “They don’t want people to know they are hosting a party.”


Parties thrown by PIMCO in London and Credit Suisse in Poland, where the bank has one of its largest back office operations, this year each had Great Gatsby themes, recalling the 1920s era of decadence and social change.

PIMCO’s featured a “flash mob” of dancers from a company called Brazilian Fantasy, while Credit Suisse’s was full of young men and women in “Roaring 20s” garb, according to Instagram posts.

The dance floor at Credit Suisse’s party was backed by a digital image of actor Leonardo DiCaprio holding a cocktail while portraying Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio played Gatsby in the 2013 film version of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby” set on New York’s Long Island.

PIMCO’s other holiday party near its Newport Beach headquarters featured women in bedazzled snow-white angel costumes whose wings glowed with LED lights.

Private equity firm Apollo’s party, hosted in a Greek restaurant near Central Park, featured “live statues”: humans standing completely still, painted to look like marble. They evoked images of Greek gods such as Adonis, Aphrodite – and, of course, Apollo.

AQR Capital, the hedge fund firm run by Cliff Asness, had a carnival-themed bash at luxury Manhattan event venue Cipriani. One attendee’s photo showed champagne being poured into a glass through a poof of nitrogen steam, and carried the caption: “Snakes, clouds, swords, oh my!”

Blackstone’s fête was held in a Waldorf Astoria ballroom whose balconies were decked with red, green and white boughs. Hundreds of partygoers were making merry in formal attire. There were a few dresses, too, but the New York crowd appeared to mostly be men.

The Pierre’s Spinner said the typical Wall Street holiday party has changed from stuffy buffet-style dinners with seating arrangements to networking events where guests mingle while drinking wine and noshing on high-end appetizers.

“There was a real emphasis on making events different but watching costs at the same time,” he said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Delevingne and Olivia Oran; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Grant McCool)