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Reformist resigns as head of Iran Cultural Heritage organization

The resignation of the head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization has brought to light previous accusations of fraud and corruption under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

TEHRAN, Iran — The resignation of Mohammad-Ali Najafi, who was in charge of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization of Iran, after only five months has stirred rumors about the organization's deep financial issues and has brought to the surface accusations of corruption from the previous administration that appeared insurmountable, even for someone with the history and reputation of Najafi.

Najafi is a famous Reformist technocrat who was originally nominated as the minister of education by President Hassan Rouhani, but failed to receive a vote of confidence from the conservative-dominated parliament. Najafi served twice as minister of higher education, as head of the Planning and Budget Organization during President Mohammad Khatami’s first term, was elected to the Tehran City Council in 2007 and, during the 2009 presidential elections, was the economic adviser to candidate Mehdi Karroubi.

Given his resume, his appointment to head the Cultural Heritage organization was viewed by many as Rouhani’s attempt to keep him close to his administration despite his lack of experience in this field. When Rouhani accepted his resignation on Jan. 30, Minister of Communications Mahmoud Vaezi said, “For a while now, Najafi has been trying to persuade the president to appoint someone else as the head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization.”      

In his letter of resignation, Najafi referred to his “poor health” as the reason. He suffers from heart trouble.

However, it appears that the biggest obstacle Najafi had to face was the large debt created by the former heads of the organization during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. It also appears that from 2005-13, the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization sold some historical buildings in Iran.

A few weeks ago, Najafi said in a news conference in the Golestan palace, built in the 19th century: “Although I do not like to talk about the past, since I believe we should look forward to the future and allow history to judge each of us accordingly, you should know that the very first letter that I received after I was appointed as the head of this organization was about the organization’s debts.”

In May 2011, the website Alef, belonging to the conservative member of parliament Ahmad Tavakkoli, published a report regarding the illegal loans and rent-seeking in the organization. The website reported: “Back in May 2009, when Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was the head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, he said: 'In accordance with Article 44 of the constitution, the organization will transfer parts of its activities, assets, hotels and shares to the SAMGA Co.'”

The report said Mashaei and Hamid Baqai, the other head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization under Ahmadinejad, were among the shareholders of SAMGA. It appears that they had founded a private company, and since they were in charge of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, they would sell the historical buildings and assets of the organization to this company. In essence, they were both the seller and the buyer in the transaction.

In March 2013, Mir-Mehrdad Sanjari, an assistant professor and a scholar of culture, published an article criticizing the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage and said: “In a short while, so many of the country’s historical monuments were destroyed.” He also discussed the new wave of destruction and had said that these monuments “are the evidence of Iran’s ancient culture and history.” He had also said that he believes this destruction “was planned ahead of time and on purpose.” He then provided the list of 11 endangered monuments

There were high expectations for Najafi when he took the position. Seyed Mohammad Beheshti, who was the head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, described his appointment as “a stroke of luck for the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization.” According to Beheshti, the organization was almost ruined and it needed to be re-established and Najafi was the right person for the task.

Najafi named Mehdi Hojjat, who is considered the father of the organization, as his deputy and also appointed Beheshti to a position in the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization. According to the famous professor of archaeology, Kamyar Abdi, “Hojjat was Najafi’s deputy, but was really running the organization and Beheshti was an adviser to Najafi.”

However, as soon as Najafi resigned, Hojjat also left the organization. This led many to feel that Najafi’s health reason was an excuse to leave the organization, and that there were other political reasons for his resignation.

A university student who is a member of the central council of the Office for Strengthening the Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), and knows Najafi personally told Al-Monitor: “Najafi is a very honorable man. He does not like to make a fuss. When he realizes that something doesn’t work, then he is not going to insist on it. I remember, prior to the elections, when Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified, I asked him what we should do now. He answered that the government does not want us to work and as long as they have this policy, there is nothing we can do to change it. Then he went and sat outside. I view his resignation the same way. He is willing to work hard and put up a fight, but he knew that they will not let him do his job so he decided to save his dignity and resign. Of course, he really does have a heart condition, too.”

The biggest impediment to Najafi doing his work, other than the organization's financial troubles, was rumors that he had sought to expose the corruption that had taken place before he took the assignment. 

Bultan News wrote, “Apparently Najafi wanting to expose the corruption in the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization is not unrelated to his eventual resignation. Perhaps being pressured by the corrupt organizations connected to the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization was an influential element in forcing Najafi to resign and Rouhani to accept his resignation.” This was confirmed by a former employee of the organization who told Al-Monitor, “Najafi was planning to expose some of the rent-seeking cases in the organization during the presidency of Ahmadinejad. Some of the people involved in those cases were members of the security and intelligence organizations and Rouhani had told Najafi that he could not support him in exposing those cases.”

Just as Najafi and Hojjat resigned, Rouhani appointed Masoud Soltanifar as the new head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization. Similar to Najafi, Soltanifar was also nominated by Rouhani as a potential minister and similar to Najafi he also failed to gain the vote of confidence from the parliament. This decision, however, seems like a political appointment that will not address the organization myriad problems.

Kamyar Abdi, who holds a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Michigan and prior to being fired was a professor in the Science and Research University of Tehran, said during an interview with Nameh News: “These people working in the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization is like me working in the Ministry of Health.” He continued: “My degree is in archaeology. Therefore, if I am appointed as the head of a clinic, even a clinic in a small village, after only one week, there would be nothing left of that clinic since I don’t know anything about medicine. ”

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