Argument

Prince of Persia

Tehran is cracking down on elite troublemakers—one influencer at a time.

A man browses jewelry through the window of a shop at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran on Feb. 12, 2020.
A man browses jewelry through the window of a shop at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran on Feb. 12, 2020. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Women in lingerie. Dom Perignon. Ferraris. More than 2.6 million followers. All pretty normal for a certain kind of influencer on Instagram. But this account didn’t belong to just any member of the privileged elite—it belonged to Sasha Sobhani, the 33-year-old son of the former Iranian ambassador to Venezuela living in Spain. And, as of Feb. 12, it was gone.

In late January, Iranian authorities took serious steps to bring an end to Sobhani’s ostentatious lifestyle. It all started when Iran filed an extradition request alleging money laundering, human trafficking, and running illegal gambling websites. A resident of Spain for almost two years, Sobhani was briefly detained by Spanish authorities at Interpol’s request. Now his extradition process will start in the coming weeks, according to El Mundo. After his release on Jan. 30, Sobhani posted a story on a now-deleted Instagram account telling his followers that all was well. Then a day later, he let loose.

For more than five minutes, in a series of Instagram stories, Sobhani—who has been pictured with prominent Iranian officials including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—called out former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for pretending not to know him during a recent interview. (There are photos of them together.) But more importantly, Sobhani, who claims to be apolitical, threatened to spill the tea about the Islamic Republic’s corruption, warning the clerical establishment that he knows the dirt on all their sons and even President Hassan Rouhani—via his bodyguards.

Sobhani, who says he has not spoken to his father in years, is hardly the first son of a high-ranking Iranian official to put his own interests above those of the Islamic Republic. But what is especially striking about Sobhani’s case is its timing. Sobhani has previously suggested that Iranian authorities wanted to go after his father but because they didn’t have anything on him, they went after his son instead. Sobhani said he hasn’t committed any crimes and that it’s his lifestyle that irks the Islamic Republic. While that may be true, the Iranian judiciary’s politically motivated recent crackdown on corruption suggests there’s more to it.

Sobhani spent much of his life abroad. His father, Ahmad Sobhani, was assigned ambassador to Venezuela in 2001 under President Mohammad Khatami. Sobhani would remain in Venezuela to attend a university after his father’s mission ended in 2006. He boasts being close friends with the son of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and claimed in a 2018 interview that contrary to what Iranians think, he made a living because of his own cleverness, not because his father was an ambassador.

According to Sobhani, his party boy image caught the attention of the diplomatic mission sufficiently for his father—who had since stepped down from his role in the foreign ministry—to issue a 48-hour ultimatum that he return to Iran in 2013. Back in Tehran, Sobhani continued his lifestyle behind closed doors, even throwing raves. During that time, he rose to prominence on social media as one of the personalities featured in the Rich Kids of Tehran Instagram account that highlighted the wealth of Iran’s nouveau riche elite at a time when multilateral sanctions devastated the Iranian economy.

In 2018, while vacationing in Turkey, Sobhani did an Instagram live with a naked woman lying on his bed in the background. Screengrabs of the event quickly went viral. Upon returning to Iran, Sobhani was arrested on charges related to pornography—an offense that often carries the death sentence. The judge presiding over Sobhani’s case wanted to put him behind bars for two years, so he fled to neighboring Turkey. Worried about the reach of Iran’s intelligence apparatus there, he left for Western Europe. Now in Spain, Sobhani has applied for asylum there.

To the average Iranian, Sobhani is an aghazadeh, a term used to describe children of the Iranian elite with connections, influence, and privilege. Nepotism and corruption has become such a big topic in Iran that a television series by the name of Aghazadeh has become the country’s most popularly streamed show. While Sobhani disagrees with that designation’s applicability to him—he said he’s self-made—his outsized wealth and persona has left many Iranians cheering his demise. Numerous videos of Sobhani have sparked online backlash, including one in which he said that instead of criticizing him, Iranians should try to work hard to earn money and if they can’t, then they should “drop dead.”

Some Iranians accuse Sobhani—who also happens to be a Spanish-Persian reggaeton singer on the side—of laundering oil money in Venezuela during the Ahmadinejad presidency. But his latest, apparently lucrative, scheme was an online casino and betting website, ABT90—one of the many online gambling websites accessible in Iran. Although gambling is illegal in Iran, it hasn’t stopped Iranians from betting their hard-earned wages on things like soccer. Sobhani is one of several Iranian Instagram influencers and celebrities living abroad and making money through online gambling. As one Iranian outlet noted, Iran’s youth—who long for a luxurious life like Sobhani’s—pour their money into these betting websites in the hopes of making it big. Instead, they lose and become addicted. It’s not surprising that these gambling websites have also been accused of being a front for money laundering schemes.

This is where the Iranian judiciary plays a role. Headed by a hard-line top contender for Iran’s next Supreme Leader, Ebrahim Raisi, it has been cracking down on corruption within Iran’s elite—albeit cherry-picking cases based on political affiliations to help hard-liners consolidate power. Raisi has made a point of targeting those affiliated with the Rouhani administration, including relatives of the president and his top officials. On Jan. 26, the brother of Iran’s first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, who some believe may be a reformist candidate in the June presidential election, was sentenced to two years in prison for financial crimes. By going after Sobhani and other gambling website owners through Interpol, the judiciary is showing it means business ahead of that vote, in which corruption is sure to be an important topic of debate.

But what does Sobhani have on the elites? In his Instagram stories, Sobhani mentions having photographic evidence (of what is unclear) and has even shared specific details about the president’s new property across from his home in an upscale north Tehran neighborhood. In a Feb. 5 interview with diaspora satellite channel Manoto, Sobhani shamed other Iranian officials, including the son of the deputy head of the judiciary Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, to underline corruption within the judiciary itself. In the interview, Sobhani also confirmed what many assumed all along: that the elite do not believe in the system and only care about getting rich at the expense of the Iranian people.

Sobhani certainly wouldn’t be the first son of the elite to tell all. Ruhollah Zam, the son of a high-ranking reformist cleric, fled Iran in 2011 after being imprisoned for his support of the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. From exile in France, Zam shared information about the elites’ corruption on his popular anti-government website, Amad News, and its sister Telegram channel to more than 1.4 million subscribers. When protests kicked off in Iran between December 2017 and January 2018, Amad News played a role in organizing protests and even distributed a manual for creating Molotov cocktails on its Telegram channel. Telegram eventually shut down the account on the basis of inciting violence, but it resurfaced as Sedaye Mardom (or “Voice of the People”). In 2019, Zam was lured to Iraq, where he was then kidnapped and taken to Iran. On Dec. 12, 2020, Zam was executed after being sentenced to death in an unfair trial earlier in the year.

Sobhani is aware of what awaits him if he is extradited. “They would torture me until I beg for death,” he told El Mundo. In October 2020, Spain extradited another Iranian national—a former banker on charges of corruption. It was a first for Europe. It is still unclear what Spain will do this time.

Because of his family background, online behavior, and means of illicit finances, many Iranians won’t be very sympathetic if Sobhani is extradited to Iran. As his Manoto interview helped highlight, Sobhani is now trying to win Iranians over by separating himself from the other sons of the elite and repeatedly disavowing the Islamic Republic—a government from which he has personally benefited. At the end of his Instagram stories, Sobhani addresses the Iranian people: “I’m a person just like all of you that likes to live freely with free thoughts. That’s why I left Iran. … I would like Iran to someday be a free and democratic country for all of us.”

Holly Dagres is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs and the editor of its IranSource and MENASource blogs. Twitter: @hdagres