Shah's fabled riches: Millions? Billions?

The fabled riches of the Shah of Iran. Fabled? Yes, fabled because so far no one except the deposed Shah knows exactly how much money he took with him when he left Iran on Jan. 16, 1979.

However, a lot of people think they know how much the Shah is worth. The estimates range from $50 million to $100 million, according to ABC's Barbara Walters, to over $1 billion, according to columnist Alexander Cockburn, all the way up to $56 billion, according to the government of Iran.

The Shah, for his part, is not issuing any annual reports detailing his finances. But his friend, Robert D. Armao, a public relations man, says the Shah has told him that he is "far less wealthy than many American millionaires."

Mr. Armao says the Shah's wealth is closer to the $50 to 100-million estimate of Barbara Walters. He differs with the figures in the billions. Mr. Armao told the Monitor: "Ihve talked to reporters who have spent a year trying to find these billions the Shah is supposed to have, and they have come to the conclusion that you and they have come to the conclusion that you can't hide billions. Someone has to know where that kind of money is if it exists."

To find out how much money the Shah really has probably would take a researcher around the world. The Shah is assumed to have either invested money through or deposited money in banks in various countries that keep their clients' affairs secret -- especially from other foreign governments.

One such researcher -- Paul O'Dwyer, a lawyer under retainer from the Islamic Republic of Iran to dig out the facts surrounding the Shah's wealth -- figures that even if he had "subpoena power," it would take five years to do the job.

Mr. O'Dwyer has been hired by the new regime to legally press for the return of the funds to Iran. In a lawsuit filed in New York against the Shah, he is asking for the return of some $56 billion from the Shah and some $3 billion from his sister, Princess Ashraf. Mr. O'Dwyer and his client, the Iranian government , came up with this figure by totaling up the money that they claim was passed through the national Iranian oil company "and is unaccounted for."

Roger Boyle of the Shah's law firm, Boyle, Vogeler & Stebbins, says the firm has entered a motion for dismissal of the case on grounds that the court does not have proper jurisdiction. He comments that the lawsuit filed by Mr. O'Dwyer is "extremely vague." In the suit, Mr. O'Dwyer claims that the Shah stole money and gave it to the Pahlavi Foundation and then stole the money from the foundation, which Mr. O'Dwyer says was run by the Shah. He then asked for damages for losses suffered from the Pahlavi Foundation.

Mr. Boyle said he would have no comment on the merits of the case or the wealth of the Shah. He expects a ruling on his dismissal motion soon.

Still others believe the secrets of the Shah's wealth can be found through two of his friends -- David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, was asked at its annual meeting about the bank's relationship with the Shah. He told the shareholder, "Our policy is not to talk about customer relationships or even verify this is a customer." Mr. Rockefeller further said that he wished "it was not our policy, so if I could comment further it could dispel a lot of allegations and misconceptions that have been leveled that are absurd."

So far, points out a Chase spokesman, the Iranian government has come up only with documents detailing the movement of some $1.8 million into Chase over a period of 11 years. Even these documents have not been verified, he adds.

Separately, sources with Chase indicate the bank is running its own internal investigation on its involvement with the Shah and his finances. This is a tedious process, including the tracing of deposits, many of which are on microfilm or were stored away before computers were widely used.

Mr. Kissinger was unavailable for comment.

So far most of the documentation of about the Shah's fortune has originated in Tehran. There, one banking source says, hundreds of researchers are combing the records of the Shah's former banks and companies to determine where the assets have gone. What has been determined so far is that when the Shah was in power he and his family controlled a substantial portion of Iran's industrial base. The family had a major interest in industries ranging from automobiles and aluminum to real estate and hotels. The Shah himself had a personal budget, drawn from the government treasury, that varied from $43 million to $1 billion per year, according to one report.

However, land was the base of Pahlavi wealth. When the Shah's father, Reza Shah I was forced into exile in 1941, the Washington Post reports, he reportedly "claimed ownership of 10 percent of the country's land." The current Shah returned some of the land to small farmers to ease some discontent, but kept a lot of it. Some of this land was sold to finance the Shah's investments elsewhere.

A substantial portion of these investments were made in Iran. From documents unearthed by the new government, it now appears the Shah and his family controlled:

* Much of the automobile business in Iran. Princess Shams, the Shah's older sister, through her daughter controlled the Fiat business while Prince Gholam, the Shah's half brother, owned a tractor assembly plant. The family was also partners with General Motors, Honda, and Jeep through the Iran-based Pahlavi Foundation.

* The construction industry. Hardly a building that was elected in Iran did not have a Pahlavi or royal family-controlled connection. The foundation also controlled a major portion of the resort and real estate industry.

* The banking industry. The royal family and the foundation had their own bank: Bank Omran, which was supposed to invest in development projects.

* Still other investments were made in timber, textiles, film distribution, agriculture, telecommunications, computers, transportation, mining, medicine, oil drilling equipment, and sporting activities.

However, not all of the funds were reinvested in the country. It is these foreign investments that have interested people the most. According to Mr. Armao, the Shah has "no investments in the US whatsoever," and he adds, "he never has." However, he declines to name where and what the Shah has invested outside of the US, only noting that "it's a big world."

Mr. O'Dwyer says he believes the Shah may have invested in real estate in the US. But, so far, there are no reports of those investments. The Shah's purchase of land on Fifth Avenue for the Pahlavi Foundation has since been taken over by another Iranian, apparently unconnected with the Shah. In fact, the 36 -story office tower which was built at a cost of over $20 million has been in financial trouble and only recently was bailed out by a $2 million grant from the government of Iran.

It is widely assumed that the Shah moved much of his wealth to Swiss banks -- famous for keeping confidential about their client's money. In order to try to crack this impenetrability, the Iranians have hired a law firm in Switzerland to represent them. So far, the Swiss government has refused an Iranian request to freeze the assets of the Shah and his family. The Swiss told the Tehran authorities they should resort to the Swiss courts and they even said they would advise the Iranians on how to do this. In a survey of 25 leading Swiss banks, the Swiss National Bank disclosed that at the end of 1978 it held $1.2 billion in deposits for Iranian banks, private companies, and individuals. The survey did not include securities held for Iranians and funds deposited in Switzerland from third countries on behalf of Iranians.

In addition to Switzerland, the Iranians have also hired lawyers in France and Spain, says Mr. O'Dwyer.

Complicating the search for the Shah's riches, says the lawyer, is the fact that some people who were entrusted with some of the Shah's money as caretakers now have decided the money is theirs to keep. However, Mr. O'Dwyer refuses to elaborate on this theory.

Mr. O'Dwyer, former New York City city council president, also has decided that it's important to know why the Shah was admitted into this country for medical treatment. Thus, he has requested, under the Freedom of Information Act , all the documents relating to Shah's move to the US. Mr. O'Dwyer, who has represented radical causes in the past, including Irish Republican Army fugitives, would like to question Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Rockefeller in his suit against the Shah.

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