The nature and size of Iran’s private sector has been a source of national debate since at least 2013. It began with the nuclear rapprochement between the Obama Administration and Iran’s then-newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, which created a window of opportunity for the liberalization of the country’s ailing economy.

That rapprochement was based on the assumption that one could do business in Iran without doing business with its parastatals. Born out of efforts to privatize Iran’s managed economy, these semi-governmental conglomerates have gained preferred access to subsidies, tax breaks and public contracts. 

Our case studies show that parastatals have been using this competitive advantage to gradually take over lucrative sectors such as energy and telecommunications, among others. In most cases, they are linked to the bonyads through common board members and beneficial ownership. In strategic sectors such as oil and gas, construction and engineering, the parastatals have complete control.

Doublethink Institute has analyzed a list of Iran’s top-earning companies, published annually by the Ministry of Industry and Mines. We checked for links to bonyads and government entities. The findings are a stark condemnation of the health of Iran’s economy:

The private sector is essentially non-existent in Iran. 99 of Iran’s top 100 companies are linked to the bonyads, the government, or both.

We then expanded this research to include all “Top 500” Iranian companies, with similar results:

  • 291 bonyad-linked companies
  • 185 government-linked
  • 24 private or unconfirmed

Some of the major bonyad-linked companies listed in the Top 500 are:

  • Carmakers Iran Khodro and Saipa
  • Pasargad, Melli and Mellat banks
  • MAPNA Industrial Group
  • Tamin Investment Group

The effect these structures have on Iranian business practices is illustrated by the experience of Rouzbeh Pirouz, a well-connected businessman. A few years ago, he returned to Iran amid a surge of optimism and found himself navigating the murkiest levels of Iran’s economy, encapsulating its dysfunction and corrupt nature by pointing to who sat on his company’s boards. “I spent three long years as a board director of a large, supposedly privatised financial services company only to give up in frustration at our inability to improve the company’s performance because most of the board were appointed by the same government ministry as before privatization,” he said, going on the record in a rare op-ed in the Financial Times. 

At the heart of the issue is a lack of domestic transparency and international oversight. Iranians grow more dissatisfied with the opacity of their economy by the day, yet they lack the information necessary to hold their political and business leaders accountable for mismanagement.

In an effort to at least partially contribute to transparency, we are making our full research findings publicly available in the following documents.

Pasargad Bank

Mapna Group

Parsian Bank

Bahman Group

Bank Sina

Behran Oil

Karafarin Bank

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