The affluent gated community of Basti Hills has long inspired speculation and envy among Iranians.
Its name a tribute to California’s Beverly Hills, the development’s luxury mansions — complete with swimming pools, jacuzzis and stunning views over the surrounding mountains — are home to some of the wealthiest and best-connected figures in Iranian society.
But now the trial of a former senior judicial official on charges of money laundering and bribery has reignited public scrutiny of Basti Hills’ wealthy occupants. At a time when most Iranians are enduring increasing economic hardship, the development a short drive from the capital Tehran has become a symbol in local media of the perceived cronyism and rampant corruption within the Islamic regime.
“I suppose the residents of those palaces must be the children of politicians. Shameful! This is what happens to all revolutions, in particular if they happen in a Middle Eastern country like Iran,” said Samaneh, 35, an accountant whose monthly salary equals to about $120 because of the weakness of the currency.
The trial of Akbar Tabari, a deputy to the former judiciary chief for executive affairs, has put Basti Hills in the Iranian media spotlight because of news reports that the charges relate to properties in Lavasan county, where the compound is located.
Mr Tabari has been charged with establishing a “network” to influence criminal cases, faking documents and money laundering in return for bribes and villas sold to him at hugely discounted prices. His clients allegedly included wealthy and politically connected businessmen.
Mr Tabari has denied any wrongdoing. The Financial Times could not reach his lawyer because his identity has not been disclosed. But clips of Mr Tabari addressing the court have gone viral.
“If I demand to have the whole Lavasan . . . it will be mine. This is thanks to friendship,” Mr Tabari said at the opening of his trial last month. He went further by telling the judge that “if you don’t have such friends, it’s none of my business”.
Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst, told Iranian media that Mr Tabari inhabited an environment “in which he believed he was behaving normally”. He added: “The worst kind of corruption . . . is when a defendant is proud of his offence.”
Mr Tabari’s network of clients allegedly included a steel tycoon, the son of a former intelligence official, a petrochemicals trader and Gholamreza Mansouri, a former judge in Lavasan. Mansouri, who was sought in Iran on corruption charges, was set to be extradited from Romania this summer but mysteriously died after falling from his Bucharest hotel room.
Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Basti lands — which are spread out over about 130,000 square metres — were owned by the Farmanfarmaian family, members of the Qajar dynasty.
Eskandar Firouz, the last Qajar prince to own the property, was jailed after the revolution and the Islamic regime seized his land for the “poor” before it was later sold to the private sector.
Over the past 15 years, dozens of new villas have been built, so grand that they are estimated by real estate agents to be worth up to 7trn rials, about $30m, based on the unofficial exchange rate. Videos of luxury homes and swimming pools inside the Basti Hills development have also circulated on Iranian social media.
“We just hear the owners are big, important businessmen who are linked to the political system, but we’ve no idea who they are,” said one real estate agent near Basti Hills. “They don’t even trade those villas through local agents, instead they buy and sell them between highly connected people.”
A regime insider said there was “too much exaggeration” about who owned the villas. “Maybe 20 per cent of the large villas in Lavasan belong to big names. How about the others? They belong to ordinary people but nobody talks about them,” he said.
Either way, the residents’ lavish lifestyles contrast starkly with those of most Iranians as the economy has been driven into a deep recession by crippling US sanctions, a situation exacerbated by the economic carnage caused by the pandemic.
“This gap [in society] can lead to looting, violence and insecurity,” said Saeed Moidfar, a sociologist. “A country where poverty and corruption are skyrocketing will certainly have a worrisome future.”
Iran’s judiciary launched an anti-corruption campaign last year and occasionally puts some prominent figures on trial in an effort to ease public anger. Dozens of people have been detained, including children of senior military commanders and state officials.
But the Islamic regime, which was established on promises of “social justice”, is still struggling to convince Iranians that it has remained true to the ideals of the revolution.
“The videos of Basti Hills make me feel miserable. Have their owners done anything to deserve that money?” said Nasim, a Tehran housewife. “God knows how many Basti Hills we have in Iran. I bet there are many.”