By Isabel Coles
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's state news agency dismissed a series of reports by Reuters about a multi-billion dollar organization controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as "disinformation" intended to undermine public trust in the Islamic Republic's institutions.
Last week, Reuters published a three-part series entitled Assets of the Ayatollah (www.reuters.com/investigates/iran/) detailing how the organization, called Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam, has become one of the most powerful institutions in Iran through the systematic seizure and sale of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians.
Setad's total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts. But its holdings of real estate, corporate stakes in a variety of industries and other assets total about $95 billion, Reuters has calculated. Through Setad, Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.
In an editorial, state news agency IRNA said the aim of the series was to tarnish the image of the institutions and undermine "the pillars of the Islamic Revolution".
"The goal of releasing such false reports about Setad... is creating doubt among the people about it and destroying people's trust in the popular institutions which serve the Islamic Republic," the editorial, published on Monday, said.
"In its report, Reuters used an old tactic which is telling partial truth and strives to present Setad - an important and charitable institution - to its audience in the way that it wants," the editorial stated.
Barb Burg, a Reuters spokesperson, said the news agency stands by the accuracy and fairness of its articles. Its estimate of Setad's net worth was based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran Stock Exchange and company websites, and information from the U.S. Treasury Department.
A spokesman for Setad did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
While critical of Reuters investigation, the IRNA text did not address Reuters key findings, namely the confiscation of property or Setad's stakes in nearly every sector of the Iranian economy, including finance, oil, telecommunications and pharmaceutical companies.
Instead the editorial, published in both Persian and English, said Setad played a crucial role in eliminating poverty in underdeveloped areas and in reducing the harsh effects of economic sanctions on Iran.
The Reuters series reported that Setad oversees a charitable foundation, and that one of its officials said in April that it had spent $1.6 billion in the past five years on development projects. But the articles said Setad's claims about its charity spending are impossible to verify because its accounts are not publicly available.
The IRNA editorial stated that "Setad has also had an effective role in decreasing the inhumane effects of sanctions imposed on the nation ... a move that provoked the Western media to launch a disinformation campaign against it by using baseless and false information."
Iran is subject to a range of stringent economic sanctions, imposed as a result of its nuclear program, that have hobbled its oil-based economy.
Iran and the six world powers are due to meet on Wednesday in Geneva to try to broker an end to the 10-year dispute over its nuclear activities, which Western nations fear are aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Tehran maintains its activities are purely peaceful.
(Editing by William Maclean and Simon Robinson)