The rising threat of Iranian soft power in the United States

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Photo by Pool/Press Office of the Iranian Religious Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Unusual news broke out of Houston, Texas late last month. The Islamic Education Center of Houston (IEC) posted a video on YouTube of children singing a Shia religious song pledge of allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A comparison of the background in the video with publicly available images from the IEC shows a striking resemblance, leading to the conclusion that the video was likely shot on location.

After backlash to the video, the IEC made it private on YouTube. Some saw it as an innocent song with a religious message, while others saw it as a political song in support of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and supreme leader, indicating Iranian soft power influences in the United States. Even those who are skeptical of the song’s sinister meaning and view it as a purely religious performance cannot ignore the Iranian influence lurking beneath the surface. The IEC is a Shia community center that contains a mosque, organizes community programs and runs a K-12 private school (Al-Hadi School) and a Sunday school. To support the local community, it operates a free health clinic, has a COVID-19 financial assistance program, offers scholarships for higher education, encourages interfaith dialogue, and more. No less importantly, the IEC clearly supports a pro-Iranian regime ideology and may be part of a larger network.

The IEC currently leases its premises from the Alavi Foundation, which leases real estate and provides financial support to Shiite organizations, some of which have clear affinities with the Iranian regime. The foundation was the goal of a civil lawsuit by the US Attorney from Manhattan, who alleged that the foundation provides services to and transfers money to the Iranian government through Bank Melli sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for his services to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. Although some observers have claimed that the relationship between the IEC and the Foundation is purely tenant-landlord, the facts suggest otherwise. According to the Alavi Foundation website, the IEC serves as Book Distribution Center for the foundation and received a grant to support the service.

The IEC is also listed signed petitions support of the foundation.

While the Alavi Foundation supports institutions and causes that are not necessarily pro-Iranian regimes, the IEC is not among these organizations. It has a history of attending pro-Islamic revolutionary events and hosting Khomeinist, anti-American speakers.

For example, on June 5, 2020 the IEC attended an event commemorating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, organized by the AhlulBayt Islamic Mission, a British organization supported by members of the Iranian regime. The event was held in partnership with Light of Guidance, an organization that attended the 2020 International Jerusalem Day conference organized by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a London-based organization with highly questionable connections to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization designated by the US and UK. Speakers at the event included Marzieh Hashemi, an American-born Press TV journalist who has been linked to an Iranian spy operationand Usama Abdulghani, a cleric who promotes conspiracy theories such as the claim that The United States and Israel created ISIS, and supports calls by Iran and Hezbollah to destroy Israel and the Jews. The IEC held several events with Abdulghani, often in honor of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Over the years it has also hosted several events commemorating Khomeini and marked Ayatollah Khamenei in his publications.

In addition, the IEC has strong ties to the Muslim Congress, which was co-founded in 2005 by the Chairman of the IEC. The Muslim Congress is a Khomeinist organization and has been characterized as such in the US Los Angeles Times. Likewise, according to the Al Zahra Foundation of Nottingham, the Pakistani and Iranian-trained Islamic scholar Hojatoleslam Maulana Ghulam Hurr Shabbiri was “direct appointed by the Office of the Supreme Leader as Imam-e-Juma and Resident Aalim of the IEC in Houston by 2015.” This suggests that the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran, which has since been sanctioned by the United States, may have a high-ranking official appointed by the IEC in Houston. Shabiri was active in many Shia communities in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The presence of pro-Iranian regime groups in the United States is a cause for concern as Iran is known for not only using education, religion and culture to expand its influence around the world, but also at times exploiting these networks for operational purposes recruitment for terrorism. Consider the case of Al-Mustafa International University, which has branches in more than 50 countries. The US Treasury Department has sanctioned this educational institution as it has enabled the IRGC Quds Force to conduct intelligence operations and use Al-Mustafa’s student body for recruitment purposes. Although Al-Mustafa has no branches in the United States, the IEC adopts the very Khomeinist ideology it embodies.

Iranian soft-power influence operations have also intensified in South America. according to a report In 2013, an Argentine prosecutor alleged that the Islamic Republic was using “local secret intelligence networks” under the guise of religious and cultural programs to develop a “capability for logistical, economic and operational support of terrorist attacks decided by the Islamist regime.” Mexico was fertile ground for Tehran – once a Univision documentary uncovered that an Iranian agent working with Mexican students attempted to conduct cyber attacks in the United States. The AhlulBayt Islamic Mission that the IEC in Houston partnered with in 2020 is considered the British arm of the Iran-based Ahlul Bayt World Assembly, which counts Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, himself a US-sanctioned terrorist, as a member of its Supreme Council.

These platforms in the United States provide a permissive environment ripe for recruitment by the Iranian regime. By shortening the path to radicalization, this could evolve into a domestic terror threat, as we have seen recently with Iran continuing to attempt and carry out attacks on American soil operates cross-border repression. Just this month, a gunman was arrested outside the home of prominent Iranian-American dissident Masih Alinejad, the victim of a kidnapping plot by Iranian intelligence. There are active threats against current and former US officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. US intelligence has repeated warned that “Iran … remains committed to developing networks within the United States – a goal it has pursued for more than a decade.” In several speeches, IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani has threatened to alienate America to attack Qassem Soleimani from his own home as revenge for the death of his predecessor.

Therefore, given the nature of the Tehran regime, Iranian soft power influences are inherently risky. His track record of turning these tactics, which at first glance seem benign, into something more sinister should be encouraged by policymakers for scrutiny.

Moshe Kwiat is an OSINT and SOCMINT analyst specializing in disinformation and influence influence and a graduate researcher at Reichman University. He’s on Twitter @Mokwi8.

Jason M. Brodsky is Political Director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research interests include Iranian leadership dynamics, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s proxy and partner networks. He’s on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.


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