Iranwire – In what might be one of the most expensive incidences of nepotism in the history of the Islamic Republic, a little-known developer and restauranteur named Arash Adibnia has abruptly been made an “advisor” to the president of Iran’s Football Federation. The appointment has cost the treasury more than 52 billion tomans, or around US$12.5m.
Adibnia’s football credentials are anyone’s guess. But what is known is that he is a business partner of the sons of Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a former vice president, spokesman and head of the Planning and Budget Organization under Hassan Rouhani.
The Stealth Grant to the Football Federation
On May 24 this year, both Mohammad Bagher Nobakht and Reza Salehi Amiri, the president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee (INOC), attended a high-level meeting with the Iranian national wrestling team. At that meeting, Wrestling Federation head Alireza Dabir requested a subsidy of 114 billion tomans (close to $27.5 million) to prepare his team for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
His entreaties fell on largely deaf ears. In the end, Nobakht agreed to allocate just 30 billion tomans ($7.2 million) to the team. Even this sum, it emerged, was drawn from a “separate budget” that the INOC and the Sports Ministry had already set aside for the Wrestling Federation.
But before the head of the Planning and Budget Organization reached into his pocket to pay the Wrestling Federation, he shelled out $12.5 million in a one-off grant to the Football Federation.
Sometime later it emerged that Massoud Soltanifar, then-Minister of Sports, had ordered that cash for the Football Federation be “confiscated”. He claimed he had frozen the funds because the body still had yet to fully renumerate Marc Robert Wilmots, the Belgian former manager of Iran’s national football team, who walked away from his three-year contract with Iran in December 2019 after just seven months in post. In August 2020, FIFA ordered Iran to pay Wilmots €8.3 million: the full value of the contract.
There were apparently procedural reasons for the Sports Ministry blocking the funds, too. Football Federation president Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem later told Tasnim news agency: “This amount was earmarked in the government’s budget as a subsidy for the National Football Team, but since federations work under the supervision of the Sports Ministry, it was deposited in the ministry’s account because it’s illegal to pay the Federation directly.”
Eventually, the grant Nobakht had awarded to the Football Federation was paid out shortly before the second round of World Cup qualifications in Bahrain. Then on September 28, the website Tarafdari reported that a hitherto unknown person by the name of Arash Adibnia had been appointed as to the Football Federation. He is understood to be taking over the Federation’s development portfolio, but no official announcement has yet been made.
Arash Adibnia, it was simultaneously disclosed, is the business partner of Mohammad Bagher Nobakht’s son Tohid. He owns a restaurant in well-to-do northern Tehran and, it transpires, also has very close business ties with Nobakht’s other son, Hossein.
Tohid Nobakht: The Gun-Toting Entrepreneur
Tohid Nobakht appears to have something of a reputation. Iranians on social media have variously accused him of “moral and financial corruption”, “bullying”, “gun-wielding”, “pandering” and having a criminal record. In April this year, the website Khabar Varzeshi (Sports News) reported that Nobakht had been made head of the Iran Martial Arts Federation – and claimed that it was then-Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar who got him the job.
In August 2018, Tohid was arrested for possession of illegal arms and ammunition. When Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the then-judiciary spokesman who is now Iran’s chief justice, was asked about it, he refused to answer – because, he said, either he or the reporter who asked the question could be sued.
Tohid was released in the end, and in 2019 registered as a parliamentary candidate for represent Rasht, the provincial capital of Gilan. A week later, however, when it became obvious that he would not qualify, he withdrew his candidacy.
Arash Adibnia: The Paper Trail So Far
Iranian media outlets have stated that the man who imposed on the Football Federation by the Nobakht family in exchange for 52 billion tomans is the business partner of Tohid Nobakht. He is known primarily as a real estate developer who benefitted from various sweetheart deals from the administrations of both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani.
Records held by Iran’s National Office of Registration of Documents and Lands show that Adibnia has also been a partner of Hossein Hedayati, a business tycoon now convicted of corruption, for many years. In 2007, Adibnia and Hossein Hedayati founded a company by the name of Saboksazan Negin Pars with an initial capital of 2.16 billion tomans (around $2.3 million at the then-exchange rate).
According to its charter, this company was officially set up to provide services such as excavation, tunnel building, road construction, drainage and creation of green spaces. Adibnia became chairman, while Hedayati, who was sentenced in 2019 to 20 years in prison for corruption and money laundering, was a lay board member. According to the records, Hossein Nobakht, another son of Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, was also a director from early 2019 onward.
Renovations and infrastructure appear – according to the company records at least – to have been Adibnia’s stock-in-trade for years. Another firm on which he served as a director,
Afarinesh Concrete Services, was founded in 2011 with an initial capital of just one million tomans (about $900) at the time. But its charter was quite ambitious, listing such services as building roads and highways, water and sewage purification, dam-building, and digging water diversion tunnels.
Now, Adibnia’s business partners’ father has inexplicably given him a plum position within the Football Federation. What experience he is bringing to this role, what he will do with it and how officials intend to justify the massive additional cost to Iranian public coffers, remains to be seen.