An unusual report emanated from Houston, Texas late last month. The Islamic Education Center of Houston (IEC) posted a video on YouTube of children singing a Shia religious song, with oaths of allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A comparison of the background of the video with publicly available IEC footage shows a striking resemblance, leading to the conclusion that the video was likely filmed on location.
Following the video’s backlash, 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 the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the Supreme Leader, meaning Iranian soft power influences in the United States . Even those who doubt the song has any sinister significance and view it as a purely religious performance cannot ignore the Iranian influence simmering beneath the surface. The IEC is a Shiite community center that understand a mosque, organizes community programs and operates a private K-12 school (Al-Hadi school), as well as a Sunday school. To support the local community, it runs a free health clinic, has a COVID-19 financial aid program, offers graduate scholarships, promotes interfaith dialogue, and more. No less important, the IEC clearly supports a pro-Iranian regime ideology and could be part of a wider network.
The IEC currently leases its space to the Alavi Foundation, which leases real estate and financially assists Shia organizations, some of which have a clear affinity with the Iranian regime. The foundation was the target of a civil action by the Manhattan US attorney, who claimed the foundation provided services and funneled money to the Iranian government through Bank Melli, which was sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department for his service to the Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Although some observers have alleged 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 to agree to support the service.
Additionally, the IEC is listed as having signed petitions support the foundation.
While the Alavi Foundation supports institutions and causes that are not necessarily pro-Iranian regime, the IEC is not one of them. He is used to attending pro-Islamic revolution events and hosting Khomeini and anti-American speakers.
For example, on June 5, 2020, the IEC participated in an event commemorating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, hosted by the AhlulBayt Islamic Mission, a British organization that has been endorsed by members of the Iranian regime. The event was organized in cooperation with “Light of Guidance”, an organization that participated in the “International Day of Jerusalem” 2020 conference organized by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a London-based organization . with very dubious links to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization designated by the United States and the United Kingdom. Speakers at the event included Marzieh Hashemi, an American-born Press TV journalist who was 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 has held several events with Abdulghani, often in honor of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Over the years it has also hosted many events in memory of Khomeini and Featured Ayatollah Khamenei in his publications.
Additionally, the IEC has close ties with the Muslim Congress, which was co-founded in 2005 by the leader of the IEC. The Muslim Congress is a Khomeini organization and has been characterized as such in the Los Angeles Times. Similarly, according to Nottingham’s Al Zahra Foundation, Pakistani and Iranian Islamic scholar Hojatoleslam Maulana Ghulam Hurr Shabbiri was “directly appointed by the Office of the Supreme Leader as Imam-e-Juma and Resident Aalim of the CIS in Houston until 2015.” This suggests that the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, which has since been sanctioned by the states States, may have appointed a senior official at the IEC in Houston. Shabiri has been active in many Shia communities in the UK and USA.
The presence of pro-regime groups in the United States is concerning, as Iran is known to use education, religion and culture not only to spread its influence around the world, but also, at times, to exploit these operational recruitment networks for terrorism. Take 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 enabled the IRGC’s Quds Force to conduct intelligence operations, using the student body of Al-Mustafa for recruitment purposes. Although Al-Mustafa has no branches in the United States, the CEI embraces the very Khomeini ideology it embodies.
Iranian soft power influence operations have also intensified in South America. According to a report by an Argentine prosecutor in 2013, he alleged that the Islamic Republic was employing “local clandestine intelligence networks” under the guise of religious and cultural programs to develop a “capacity to provide logistical, economic and operational support to terrorist attacks decided by Islamic power. regime.” Mexico has been fertile ground for Tehran – a Univision documentary once revealed that an Iranian agent working with Mexican students was seeking to carry out cyberattacks in the United States. The AhlulBayt Islamic Mission, with which the IEC in Houston collaborated in 2020, is considered the British branch of the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly based in Iran, which account Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, himself a US-sanctioned terrorist, as a member of its Supreme Council.
These platforms in the United States provide permissive environments conducive to recruitment by the Iranian regime. By shortening the path to radicalization, this could become a domestic terrorist threat, as we have seen recently Iran continues to try to carry out attacks on American soil and engages in transnational repression. This month, a gunman was arrested outside the home of prominent Iranian-American dissident Masih Alinejad, who had been the victim of a kidnapping plot by Iranian intelligence services. There are active threats against current and former US officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The US intelligence community has repeatedly said warned that “Iran…remains committed to developing networks inside the United States – a goal it has pursued for more than a decade.” In several speeches, IRGC Al-Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani threatened to attack America from within his own home in revenge for the death of his predecessor Qassem Soleimani.
Thus, Iranian soft power influences are inherently risky given the nature of the regime in Tehran. His track record of leveraging these tactics, which at first glance seem benign, into something more sinister should have policymakers looking closely.
Moshe Kwiat is an OSINT and SOCMINT analyst specializing in disinformation and influence operations, and a graduate researcher at Reichman University. He’s on Twitter @Mokwi8.
Jason M. Brodsky is the political director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research specialties include the dynamics of Iranian leadership, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and partner networks. He’s on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.