AFTER a week of sitting in his Nissan spying around-the-clock on a house across the road in Tehran’s north, not for the first time Sassan Khalebani pondered how his life had come to this.
First there were the strange visits, then the abusive abrupt telephone calls. The previous week members of several local families began trying to smash the windows and glass tabletops of his small but busy travel agency in central Tehran in a rowdy melee that was threatening to turn more violent.
He knew of course how it all began — Man Haron Monis, formerly known as Mohammad-Hassan Manteghi, whose house in Sa’adat Abad in north Tehran he was now sitting outside, in the hope of finding him and getting some answers. He never would.
Monis’ arrival at the Rahelenoor Tour and Travel Agency had been as sudden as his disappearance with the lifesavings of dozens of clients, which set in train a new life that would end half a world away in the Lindt Café in Martin Place in central Sydney.
A News Corp Australia investigation into Monis’ life in Iran reveals new details that suggest there may have been more to Monis beyond crazed idealist.
At the time he “disappeared”, he was managing director of the travel agency and a businessman with both high-level political and religious contacts. A father of two girls, he was also suspected of being an Iranian intelligence officer tasked with bringing disgrace and financial ruin to political opponents. He also stole far more money than has previously been reported.
MAN MONIS, A SHADY TRAVEL AGENT
Monis came to Rahelenoor travel agency as managing director in 1996. Nobody was really sure where he came from but staff were told he was now the new boss. At that time there were about a hundred such agencies operating in Tehran and it was a busy hub, offering not just flights but visas for those wanting to leave the republic to start a new life. Monis was at the time said to be a religious figure, having performed various studies, and was also married to Zahra Mobasheri, a university professor who tied the knot with him when she was still a teen in 1983. Mobasheri’s father Habibolah was deputy head of the prestigious Imam Sadiq University, a pivotal institution for the Iranian regime’s top cadre and officials from the State’s intelligence agency. Habibolah was known to be influential in the Iranian government.
A change of managing director was not seen as unusual and staff were told their new boss was a well connected 32-year-old father of two girls aged 7 and 8 years.
He occupied the top floor of the Shariati Street agency and had little to do with staff at the counters downstairs but worked 8am to 5pm, Saturday through to Thursday.
“He was very normal, smiley, would come in and say good morning to everyone and ‘where is my tea, someone bring me my tea’, normal things like this,” Khalebani recalled.
“He just went upstairs, oversaw business. The owner of the business knew of him from another religious connection and was told he would make a good managing director for the company. You could not imagine what he was really doing and was about to escape, nobody could believe he was going to escape.”
Monis was planning his exit from almost the moment he took over the business. At the same time he was putting up a framed photograph of himself on the wall announcing his arrival, he was already looking to a rival travel agency to book him passage to Australia.
For the seven months he worked at the agency he made numerous appointments with families wishing to migrate to other countries, mostly Europe and also possibly Australia. Khalebani said Monis was dealing with 14 families, a total of 40 family members, who were selling off their assets for a new life abroad and that he had taken from them 750 million Iranian rials, the equivalent of about AUD$550,000 on rates of the day. This figure is considerably higher than the US$200,000 previously reported theft of life savings in exchange for visas, fees and start up costs overseas.
“He just talked, ‘OK if you want to go to Australia I can do it’, ‘you want Europe I can do it’, it was like this for six or seven months,” recalled one customer. Monis also explained that the owner of the agency, well known political figure Rasoul Montajebnia, had personal relationships with several ambassadors and consulates.
But Monis made no attempt to apply for any visas, according to official Iranian immigration papers, which show in July 1996 he had applied for himself through another travel agency, Vala Tours, for a working visa to Australia with a 4.2 rial (AUD$3000) return ticket issued two months later on September 9. He flew out on Iranian Airlines flight 840 on October 26 from Tehran to Kuala Lumpur then onto Sydney on Malaysian Airlines MH123. As a condition of the visa, he had booked a return ticket from Sydney departing on November 26, a section he was never going to take. He told those at that agency he would be back after he concluded some business deals and investment talks.
Three weeks after Monis was due to return, customers arrived at the agency seeking their visas.
“They sold everything they had, house, furniture everything to give money to this man to start a life somewhere in another country and be a resident there. Most of them were heading to Europe,” Khalebani recalled.
“We didn’t know he was going out of the country. One week, two week, one month waiting for this man but he didn’t show up himself and we see that everybody come asking ‘what happened to our visa?”
Monis used the name of respected agency boss Montajebnia and his stamped signature on all the documents, thereby directly linking him to all transactions. When he could not be found, it was Montajebnia who was then liable for their losses and the target of the customer’s anger.
MONIS ‘BEHIND POLITICAL CONSPIRACY’
Montajebnia had been a relatively outspoken vice president of the reformist opposition Etemad Melli political party in Iran. Two colleagues, including the party president Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, were candidates against the ruling president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election but were beaten in the first round of voting which gave Ahmadinejad a second term. The pair protested and claimed the results were rigged. They were promptly arrested and have been under house arrest ever since, including time in jail cells and being held in a ‘safe house’ belonging to the intelligence services with limited access to friends and family, telephones and TV. Their wives, also active vocal party members, were also placed under house arrest. Earlier this month Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijanoi said a decision would now be made to prosecute them in court. The death penalty for acting contrary to national security has been suggested.
Karroubi and Montajebnia were great friends and very close when they were both the equivalent of MPs. Karroubi particularly was seen as an influential figure in Iran, having twice been the chairman of the parliament in the early 1990s and again from 2000 to 2004.
At the time Monis came to work at Montajebnia’s travel and migration agency, it was a major source of revenue for the party with funds raised going towards the election prospects of Etemad Melli’s senior figures, including Montajebnia, Karroubi and Mousavi.
This is where a suspected conspiracy exists among Etemad Melli supporters, who believe Monis was a plant in the business to bring it to ruin and thereby so too a financial stream for the political reformist group.
“He was sent to attack the agency so they (candidates) would not go up, rise in popularity,” said one who asked not to be named.
“Someone wanted to make problem for this society (political party) and this man make the problem. They wanted to be the top, go to the top of government because they are against the government for some political issues but Manteghi (Monis) came inside and made problem for this group.”
It was widely known that Monis had studied at Sadiq University, the main training ground for Iran’s intelligence service. Some believed he was from the Right of politics and a supporter of the government so thought it strange he would be employed by the Left reformist party and even to have attended Karroubi rallies.
Khalebani, 42, said he was not sure whether Monis was a plant but said he certainly made trouble for his employers, not just in stealing the money but also by dobbing in Montajebnia’s son to the authorities for trying to skip his national military service. The tactic was to remove the son who was to see the day-to-day runnings of the operation and report to his father. The son was caught by military authorities and was not in the business for the months Monis carried out the theft.
MONIS ‘LIED’ ABOUT RELIGION
Monis had performed religious studies but those spoken to by News Corp Australia scoffed at suggestions he was any sort of leading cleric. Simply completing such studies affords some status but not to lead others.
Still no-one could believe he could have fled the country the way he did.
Police were called and by January 1996 had barred him from leaving the country — even though he had already fled. Members of the 12 defrauded families trashed the travel agency and fought employees. Montajebnia’s business collapsed and he had to sell many assets, as well as lose his position as head of the local mosque. Still politically active, he now teaches at a local university.
The Montajebnia family declined to comment but confirmed it had struggled to pay back debts incurred by “the thief”, even in instalments to some of the victims. Montajebnia’s family had taken on the debt, primarily his son, and through a bank loan to pay back the 14 families was still in debt to the bank.
Monis’ wife Mobasheri said his acts had brought shame to the family through his deception and he was a traitor to both his family and country. She said he was cruel, unhinged and a wife beater who terrorised their children, and she wanted to divorce him many times.
Despite being abandoned it would be five years before she formally divorced him even though she could have made the application after six months of his absence.
Professor Mohsen Alviri, an associate from Monis’ university days and now Professor in Tehran’s, Bagher Al-Oloom University, said Monis marriage was welcomed by her father who was impressed by the intelligent and religious man. But he, Alviri, later saw how Monis was prone to huge mood swings and could be friendly one minute and weird, angry and dismissive the next. He surmised that he simply had an ugly side which eventually went all bad.
Such was the dysfunctional marriage, there was an intervention and direct counselling by the influential Mahdavi Kani, former Iranian prime minister and interior minister and a founder in the Establishment during the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.
It was another impressive connection, which appears to contradict the Iranian Government’s explanation that Monis was not connected to anyone of authority and was just a deranged fraudster, as the apparatus claimed in a public statement earlier this month.
HOW IRAN DISCOVERED WHERE MONIS FLED
Four years after the theft, in December 2000, a small news item with a photo on the front page of the UK-based Persian newspaper Kayhan London depicted Monis chaining himself to the gates of the NSW State Parliament in a protest. For many back in Iran it was the first sighting or knowledge of him since he disappeared.
His name was different but he was widely recognised by his local community.His former work colleagues still talk about the day they found out he was in Australia, both from the shock of finding him but also because of his crazy protest act. It was not normal, he was not like that when he worked with them.
“None of us could believe it was him,” Khalebani said. “Now people say he was crazy but he wasn’t when he worked with us. Australia did wrong here.
“If they had sent him back to Iran when the authorities, police, Interpol, had asked for him, it was better, but they didn’t do it and they said he had residence in Australia and they couldn’t give him back … and closed the file. And then Sydney happened.”