(Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits next to a portrait of late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in a television programme in Tehran on the occasion of the Iranian New Year March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Leader.ir/Handout)

(This is the second story in a three-part series, Assets of the Ayatollah. The first article was Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei controls vast financial empire built on property seizures)

Seven years ago, the United Nations and Western powers began subjecting Tehran to steadily harsher economic sanctions. Around the same time, an organisation controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei started to study how some developing economies managed to grow fast.

Setad, as the organisation is known, had amassed billions of dollars in property seized from Iranian citizens. What Iran lacked and needed, Setad decided, was conglomerates on a par with those of South Korea, Japan, Brazil and the United States.

According to an account this year by a senior official in the unit that oversees Setad’s financial investments, Ali Ashraf Afkhami, the organisation also picked the perfect candidate to create an Iranian national champion: Setad itself.