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The Role of Astan-e Quds Razavi, a Key “Religious Foundation”, in Iranian Regime’s Terrorism, Extremist Policies, And Recruitment of Western Spies

Ebrahim Raisi, the then caretaker of AQR, offers Qassem Soleimani, commander of terrorist Quds Force, the highest honorary title of AQR, July 21, 2018, Mashhad, Iran
Ebrahim Raisi, the then caretaker of AQR, offers Qassem Soleimani, commander of terrorist Quds Force, the highest honorary title of AQR, July 21, 2018, Mashhad, Iran

Written by Staff Writer on .

Executive summary:

The mullah’s regime uses NGOs to attract terrorists, recruit spies in the West, and fund its fundamentalist policies. But this strategy is well-concealed, so as to hoodwink much of the world into thinking such institutions have no connection to the regime’s malign activities.

The organizations in question are not under any sort of monitoring or financial audit, making them a perfect instrument of the regime’s political and strategic goals. Astan-e Quds Razavi (AQR), one of the most longstanding financial and religious foundations in Iran is one such institution; another example of the clerical regime exploiting religion to pursue its ominous objectives.

The following report, compiled by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reveals how Iran’s regime uses AQR Foundation, a key “religious foundation” to finance terrorism, fundamentalism and particularly recruit professional spies and mercenaries without attracting any attention or being held accountable.

An AQR-funded organization recruited former the United States Air Force intelligence officer Monica Witt. And this is just one of many projects where Iranian authorities have plundered the income of this huge foundation. That income is based on the people’s centuries-long financial endowments to the shrine of Shiite Islam’s 8th leader, Imam Reza. The shrine is in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran.

The general structure and role of Astan-e Quds Razavi within Iran’s economy

Behzad Nabavi, a government minister in several administrations, said in an interview with the state-run Alef news agency on September 21, 2019, “In our country, there are four institutions which control 60 percent of the national wealth. This includes Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (Setad Ejraie Farman Imam), Khatam-ol-Anbiay Base, Astan-e Quds and Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled. None of these institutions are in connection with the government and parliament.”

Even if Astan-e Quds Razavi is not Iran’s richest conglomerate, its authorities say, it is the biggest Islamic financial endowment (Moqofati). AQR manages all the financial endowments accrued over centuries, and the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, appoints its custodian.  In the last 40 years, only three individuals have held this position.

Only the Supreme Leader has the authority to financially audit this financial empire that employs tens of thousands of people. The organization enjoys tax exemption; its assets include 50 large companies and 43 percent of Mashhad real estate, the second-most populous city in Iran. In other words, AQR owns over 13,000 acres of land in Mashhad alone.

Yet these endowments are not limited to Mashhad or Khorasan province. Astan-e Quds Razavi has various lands, gardens, wells and aqueducts across Iran; plus 300,000 tenants from Hamadan, East Azerbaijan, Golestan, Gilan to Tehran, Semnan, and Yazd. The estimated value of Astan-e Quds Razavi’s lands is around 20 billion dollars, to say nothing of its other possessions.  

This organization has full independence in the petroleum operations it controls. It has exclusive oil rigs and profits from its own imports and exports. Astan-e Quds Razavi also owns a part of Iran’s railroads and industries such as Mobarakeh Steel, as well as a large portion of the country’s mines and resources. This is only a part of its overall possessions.

Starting some years ago, Astan-e Quds Razavi became active in construction outside Iran. Its overseas projects include the construction of a bridge over the Euphrates for one kilometer inside Syria.

Astan-e Quds Razavi financing activities of New Horizon institution in serving terrorist Quds Force and recruiting western spies  

On February 13, 2019, the U.S. State Department sanctioned two institutions and 9 individuals affiliated to the Iranian regime.  One of these two institutions was the “New Horizon Organization” (In Farsi it is called Ofogh No Organization). Nader Talebzadeh and Zainab Mohana Talebzadeh were among the sanctioned individuals. Talebzadeh cooperates with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) organization of electronic war and defense.

The IRGC supports the New Horizon institution, and authorities have admitted to its liaison with the Khamenei’s office.

Its main task is providing cultural cover for the Quds Force’s terrorist acts and obtaining security intelligence. This is accomplished, for instance, by holding “conferences” and other events to recruit agents for the IRGC’s Quds Force and obtain information from foreign citizens.

New Horizon also uses foreign agents to produce and disseminate material for the regime’s demonization campaign against the Iranian opposition, particularly the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK). For instance, during the sixth conference of New Horizon that was held in Mashhad on May 2018, representatives of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) advocated and distributed several books and publications of the MOIS against the MEK in English and also used the event to tarnish the image of the MEK and also briefed the individuals who were brought to the conference by the regime and tarnished the image of the MEK.

On February 13, 2019, U.S. officials declared that the Iranian regime had recruited Monica Witt, a former the United States Air Force intelligence officer, with access to classified intelligence. She now cooperates with the mullahs’ regime in an extensive operation targeting her former intelligence colleagues. U.S. attorneys issued an arrest warrant for Witt based on 18 charges including espionage, fraud, aiding and abetting a foreign state.

The IRGC’s Quds Force recruited Ms. Witt following her participation in two international conferences the New Horizon held in support of the Quds Force.

Monica Witt, who later chose the name “Fatemeh Zahra” went to Iran to participate in the IRGC’s “Hollywoodism” conference held under the New Horizon’s cover in January 2012.

Iran’s intelligence services recruited Witt through the “New Horizon” institution in 2013. Witt attended another “Hollywoodism” conference at the Parsian Azadi Hotel in February 2013. On August 28, 2013, Witt went to Iran. Immediately after arriving in Iran, immediately upon her arrival in Iran, Witt was furnished with housing and computer equipment in order to facilitate her work on behalf of the regime.

 

According to the U.S. officials, she immediately started her cooperation with the regime and provided the Iranian regime with classified information, including real names of U.S. intelligence resources.

Notably, Astan-e Quds Razavi financed the New Horizon seminars and meetings that prepared the ground for Witt recruitment.

According to the organizers like Nader Talebzadeh, AQR financed the New Horizon’s 6th international conference held in May 2018. making it the New Horizons’ de facto sponsor.

According to the organizers, 60 political, security, and military personalities from other countries participated in this conference held in Mashhad under the name of “Quds, the everlasting capital of Palestine.”

Financing and providing facilities for fundamentalist activities and foreign agents

Astan-e Quds Razavi has played an active role in providing financial, material and logistical support to fundamentalist and terrorist groups within the last few years.  Particularly, the heads of AQR have vast relations with Hezbollah’s top officials. It is worth noting that these activities within the past few years have been expanding.

For example, Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of Astan-e Quds (now the regime’s judiciary chief), personally visited Lebanon at the end of January 2018 and met Hezbollah leaders, including Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. He also visited Hezbollah’s military positions in southern Lebanon. ]The U.S. Department of Treasury placed Raisi on its sanctions list on November 5, 2019]

Raisi met with the family members of the highest-ranking commanders Hezbollah involved in the regime’s terrorist operations, who were killed and expressed his support of them. These include Imad Mughniyeh, the second-in-command of Hezbollah and its former military commander, who was personally involved in some major terrorist operations against western targets such as the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, killing U.S. Navy personnel, and planning bombings at the U.S. Embassy and Marine Base in 1983.

During his meeting with Nasrallah, Raisi said that the Hezbollah Secretary-General and Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s terrorist Quds Force, have a lot in common.

Raisi, also visited the Lebanese head of the Shi’ite’s Assembly, Abdul Amir Qablan and said, “The Zionist regime because of its terrorist nature was highly inclined to ISIS to be formed as the second center of state terrorism in the region, but the resistance front neutralized the plot promptly. God willing, the first center of terrorism will have the same fate.”

Raisi also stressed the necessity of Astan-e Quds’ cultural presence in Lebanon and its work with Lebanese cultural centers, which are in fact paving the way for the regime to recruit agents. He said, “Now in the world, a new civilization in the name of Islam is on the verge of creation, so the scholars should take the maximum advantage in this field.”

On the occasion of his first 200 days as custodian of AQR, on August 14, 2016, Raisi held a program called “Celebration of Islamic Resistance,” which opened with a message from Hassan Nasrallah.

On September 2nd of that year, Raisi met with Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of the Iraqi Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Iran’s state-run Tasnim News Agency quoted Akram al-Kaabi as saying, “During the presence of American forces in Iraq, Al-Nujaba, conducted 3,000 operations against these occupier forces and the footage is still available.” Underlining the importance of Iran’s support of the so-called resistance groups, he continued: “The fighters of the Islamic resistance in Al-Nujaba were trained and equipped by Iran. In this way, they have gained a lot of experience on the battlefield.”  

The U.S. included Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and its leader Akram al-Kaabi in its sanctions list on March 5, 2019.

 

On July 14, 2019, a delegation of the AQR Met with Qais al-Khazali, leader of the terrorist group of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq. According to the group’s official website, the delegation praised Qais al-Khazali for his so-called “defense of the rights of the Islamic Ummah” and gave him an Astan-e Quds’ flag.

Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Qais al-Khazali have both been on the U.S. sanctions list for years.

Astan-e Quds Razavi, also supports family members of Iranian agents who have been killed, including members of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, as well as agents in Iraqi, Syria, Nigeria, and so on. The regime organizes pilgrimage and tourism in Iran and uses this for further terrorist and extremist recruitment.

According to state-run daily Quds Online on May 11, 2019, Ahmad Marvai, the current custodian of AQR, met with a number of dead Hezbollah operatives’ family members and said, “Hezbollah, with its prowess, faith, faithful members and martyrs, has been able to cast away the sleep from the eyes of Israel.” He continued, “There is no distance between us and Hezbollah in Lebanon, other than geographic distance. We pray for martyrs of Lebanese Hezbollah and for the wellbeing and prosperity of Mr. Seyed Hassan Nasrallah. We hope that the almighty God adds to the glory and power of Hezbollah and all Shiite Muslims every day.”

According to Astan-e News, the web site of AQR,  a group of 35 family members of  Hezbollah and 28 family members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force who were killed had their pilgrimage to Mashhad O Dec 11, 2018, during the pilgrimage that was paid by AQR, the shrine was illuminated for them. The families participated in various cultural and religious programs provisioned by the management of AQR.

On another occasion, some 400 foreign guests, including the regime's foreign mercenaries in Syria, whom AQR described as 'Activists of the Symbolic Resistance Front,' attended the Fajr Awakening conference on February 13, 2018.

On August 14, 2016, Astan-e Quds Razavi held its first 'Conference on the Holy Shrines of the Islamic World' with the goal of “laying the groundwork for a united front for the Islamic nation,” “strengthening the resistance's ranks,” “spreading the martyrdom culture,” and “persistence and creating an atmosphere for protecting religious shrines and pilgrims.” The regime’s mercenaries from Iraq and Syria were brought in for the event.

Astan-e Quds Razavi organized the 'Under the Sun' propaganda plan that complemented visits by agents and potential agents to Astan-e Quds. Under this plan, which aims to spread Islamic extremism and identify potential spies, extremists, and terrorists, delegations make their way from Astan-e Quds to other countries in pursuit of the regime's agenda. The 'Under the Sun' delegations have visited a number of provinces in Lebanon and Syria. In August 2016, Javad Mohammadi-Faz, the head of Astan-e Quds’ delegation in Lebanon, admitted that they were hosted by Hezbollah’s youth branch and that all the coordination for the trip took place in Syria and Lebanon via Khamenei's Office. In Syria, this delegation took part in collecting donations (funds for the Zeinabis or Qobar Rubi) and visited the regime's mercenaries on the war fronts.

Based on the remarks of AQR officials and the organization's public information, 'Under the Sun' delegations have taken part in special events in more than 20 Asian, African and European countries including Lebanon, Iraq, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Georgia, The Netherlands, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Germany. They have also tried to expand this project by bestowing gifts and holding teleconference events in nearly 35 countries.  

One of the Astan-e Quds’ actions was to hold expensive ceremonies to remember Imad Mughniyeh. One such event took place in Mashhad on February 25, 2008, with the presence of Vaez Tabasi, then-head of the foundation, as well as mullah Ahmad Alam-ol-Hoda, Khamenei's representative in Khorassan province, and Abdullah Safi-addin, then Hezbollah's representative in Iran.

Other related actions included bringing Mughniyeh's mother to Mashhad and seeing to her needs.

Activities to promote Islamic extremism in Africa

Astan-e Quds activities in expanding Islamic extremism and attracting fundamentalists is not limited to the Middle East and also includes Africa.

On March 19, 2018, Mullah Mohammad Mehdi Sibavi, head of Astan-e Quds’ Office of International Relations and Cooperation, met with Hassan Abou Khalil, Hezbollah’s head of Western African affairs, and declared his readiness for more cooperation, particularly in recruiting more people from Africa, Syria, and Lebanon.

“It was decided to use our Hezbollah brothers’ potential and actual talents in Africa, and to also cooperate with them in the cultural fields (i.e. export of Islamic fundamentalism),” he said.

He emphasized that cooperation between Astan-e Quds’ Office of International Relations and Cooperation and Hezbollah’s leaders in Western Africa would start in the summer of 2018.

Astan-e Quds is in contact with Ibrahim Zakzaki, who according to the state-run media is the “Shiite Leader in Nigeria.” Zakzaki, who received his training in the Qom seminary after the mullahs came to power, follows the Iranian regime’s policies and Ali Khamenei’s mindset. He has publicly spoken of its loyalty to the mullahs’ regime, and once said in an interview that he trains some of his followers with a method inspired by the “IRGC example.” Zakzaki has pursued his policies through a group that the Iranian regime calls “Nigeria’s Hezbollah.”

 

A delegation from Astan-e Quds’ 'Under the Sun' organization participated in a ceremony on September 4, 2014, held 40 days after a number of Nigerian Shiite Muslims were killed. (In Shiite tradition, mourning ceremonies are held on the third, seventh and 40th days after death). While offering gifts and delivering speeches in support of the movement, the Quds delegation was hosted by Sheikh Zakzaki.

According to Astan-e Quds officials, this organization has expanded to other African nations including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Malawi, and Uganda. In Zambia, after the Iranian regime’s embassy was closed down, AQR front organization continued its activities under the guise of a charity organization and NGO. According to the remarks of the organization’s officials, it assumed some of the duties of the embassy, including overseeing its property. And in de facto, it became the representative of the Islamic Republic in this country.

Expanding relations with the Revolutionary Guards, the terrorist Quds Force, and its commander Qassem Soleimani

The relationship between AQR and the terrorist Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, particularly with its commander Qassem Soleimani, has expanded in recent years.

On July 21, 2018, while still caretaker of AQR, Ebrahim Raisi hosted Soleimani in Mashhad and offered him the highest honorary title of AQR. Soleimani even took part in the ceremony of dusting the tomb of Imam Reza. (In reality, the ceremony involves collecting the donations made to the tomb, a role that traditionally was done by the kings or grand religious leaders). On the same day, Astan-e-News, the news outlet of AQR, wrote, “Today, Commander (Soleimani) came to Mashhad alone, but it was as if thousands of martyrs, protectors of the tombs and Islam, and millions of hearts filled with love of the Imam of compassion in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other nations of Islam, were visiting the tomb with their commander.” 

On July 25, 2019, the custodian of AQR gave the IRGC’s air force commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh and four other IRGC officers, medals for taking down a U.S. drone.

"You were able to complete your mission by a precise and timely task and action against the aggressor, who understands nothing but the language of power. You were able to point out that the ‘hit and run’ era is over,” said Ahmed Marawi, the current custodian of the AQR.

In 2017, Astan-e Quds Razavi set up the "Keramat (dignity) Foundation," based on a model of Barak Foundation, a major sub-division of Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive, another economic conglomerate. IRGC Brigadier General Hussein Yekta was appointed as the Managing Director of Keramat Foundation.  Mohsen Mansouri is the current Managing Director of the Keramat Foundation.

Astan-e Quds provides facilities for the IRGC, including in the Arbaeen ceremony in Iraq to intervene in neighboring countries, via this organization.

Conclusion and observations

Domestic repression, terrorism and Islamic extremism and warmongering in the region are part of the regime's DNA.

The mullah’s regime has used every means to maintain its rule. This includes domestic suppression, the export of terrorism, Islamic extremism and warmongering in the region. These are the regime’s strategic pillars. Even charity organizations, foundations, and institutions, which at first glance have no connection to the regime, are not exempt. The regime appoints its leaders and uses them for its purposes.  

In this regard, the regime has even misappropriated the vast resources of the Astan-e Quds Razavi Foundation, which are created from the financial endowments and donations of several generations of Iranians out of their deep beliefs in Imam Reza, and intended for humanitarian purposes. The financial empire of Astan-e Quds Razavi was supposed to be a charitable organization for the public interest but now serving the regime’s evil purposes entirely.

This foundation and other similar foundations, which are under the direct supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are in fact the regime’s tools to continue its reign.

The truth is that under the mullah’s regime, there is no non-governmental organization. All official institutions in Iran are either created by the regime or have been seized for its evil purposes, as in the case of Astan-e Quds Razavi. The regime selects all the key officials of these organizations from among the regime’s own senior officials. There is no possible way to differentiate these organizations from the regime’s official instruments of suppression and terrorism.

The Iranian regime uses foundations such as Astan-e Quds to circumvent sanctions and fund its oppressive and terrorist policies Subsequent to the blacklisting of the IRGC and the expansion of US sanctions aimed at cutting off the regime’s economic resources, the regime has utilized AQR and similar entities to circumvent the sanctions and to finance its repressive and terrorist policies.

It is the time that Astan-e Quds Razavi and similar organizations and their business counterparties be sanctioned to prevent this regime from using the people’s wealth to continue op

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