Organizations and Associations in the Service of Quds Force in Syria

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Quds Forces operate in target countries, based on diverse Iranian organizations. It is important that the US administration designates the three organizations analyzed in this study (The Iranian Red Crescent, The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, and The Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines) as terror organizations, in order to constrict Iranian activity in Syria.

Quds Forces’ Activity in Target Countries Through Alleged Civilian Organizations

Quds Forces are the elite unit in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) responsible for terrorist activities Iran promotes around the world. During the 41 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Quds Forces have accumulated knowledge and extensive experience regarding terrorist activity in the international arena. For their activity had already begun in the 1980’s under the name of “the office for liberation movements”, based on one of the articles in the IRGC regulations , which states that the IRGC “must support the liberation movements and the just rights of the oppressed around the world.” Iran’s subversion, promoted by “the office for liberation movements”, began immediately after the establishment of the Islamic Republic; Thus, the office was  behind the failed Shi’ite coup attempting Bahrain in December 1981. At first, the office operated under the IRGC, then, because of power struggles it separated and began to operate independently sponsored by Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and headed by his son Mohammad (eliminated in 1981), and by his son-in-law’s brother,  Mehdi Hashemi (executed in 1987). In 1986, Khomeini ousted Mehdi Hashmi from the leadership of the “office for liberation movements”in an attempt to consolidate the regime’s export policy, transferring the office to the Foreign Ministry. The office was subject to the Foreign Ministry until 1988 when it returned to the IRGC and became the Quds forces.[1]

Khamenei at the Revolutionary Guards assembly
Khamenei at the Revolutionary Guards assembly [2]

In November 1989, about a year and three months after the ending of the Iran-Iraq war and six months after taking office as Iran’s leader,Ali Khamenei significantly elevated the Quds Forces operations, instructing them to “establish Hezbollah popular and armed units worldwide.”[3]

From then on over the years, Quds Forces have been assisted by a long line of mechanisms and tools in order to establish or closely help with the establishment of terrorist organizations, their funding, training and arming. This has been achieved through covert activities designed to circumvent the sanctions against Iran, as well as the eyes of the western intelligence services and sometimes the eyes of governments in target countries. These mechanisms include various banks, Iranian airline companies, charities (Bonyads), religious associations, economic and humanitarian organizations, and more. Over the years, these organizations and associations have been partly included in the US sanctions list since the IRGC Quds Forces used them to fund the Iran-backed terrorist organizations, providing them with weapons and combat equipment.

Quds Forces Activity in Syria

Syria is one of the main destination Quds Forces are active in today.This is based on the Iranian strategy, which strives to exploit the war in the country and Assad’s dependence on Iranian support (alongside Russia), in order to turn Syria into a front base against Israel, equipped with factories to manufacture advanced weapons and to maintain and strengthen Hezbollah’s supply route into Lebanon and the access to the Mediterranean Sea. The US administration has consistently imposed sanctions on Iran and its various affiliates in Syria, with the aim of restricting its foothold in the country. However, currently there are at least three associations Quds Forces use to operate throughout Syria.

The Iranian Red Crescent

The first association is The Iranian Red Crescent. The ‘modus operandi’ of the association already used in service of the Quds Forces has been revealed in several strategic junctions. In an interview with the Iranian media in April 2019, a former IRGC senior  commander official, Saeed Qassemi, revealed that in the framework of Iran’s assistance to Bosnian Muslims, the IRGC troops present in Bosnia used the Iranian Red Crescent in order to provide military training to Jihad Sunni militants in Bosnia during the Bosnian war (1992-1995).[4]

Alongside this, WikiLeaks documents revealed that the Iranian Red Crescent serves as a cover for Quds Forces and the Iranian Intelligence Office (MOIS), making extensive use to advance Iranian subversion in various countries including Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq. As revealed, all the teams that the Iranian Red Crescent dispatched to Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, allegedly to assist the civilian population, were in fact Quds Forces who arrived in Lebanon to assist Hezbollah. The crews brought military equipment and weapon supplies masked as shipments of medical equipment.[5]

The Iranian Red Crescent logo
The Iranian Red Crescent logo [6]

According to the Iranian Red Crescent reports and other reports, during the war in Syria, the Iranian Red Crescent was active throughout the country carrying out various humanitarian operations.[7] In light of the extensive history the association accumulated in the European and Middle East arenas, it is likely that it serves as a cover for Quds Forces missions in Syria as well.

The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation

Khomeini established the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation in 1979. Its declared purpose is to eradicate poverty and provide regime support to the disadvantaged. Khamenei directly appoints the chairperson of the foundation. The foundation enjoys a rich budget transferred from the regime as well as donations from Iran and worldwide. The foundation budget consists of government funding (which stood at $1 billion in 2015), grants from Khamenei’s office, income from its economic activities (such as agriculture, infrastructure and mining) and charity funds from Iran and beyond.[8] As a result, this charity is one of the richest in the country, which, together with its activity helping the disadvantaged population across Iran, carries out significant activity throughout the Islamic world. The foundation serves as one of the key channels of the Quds Force worldwide, and so for example, according to WikiLeaks documents was one of the channels throughout Quds Forces delivered weapons to the various pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq during the war against US-led coalition forces (2011-2003), so far it has not been included in the US sanctions list.[9] However, the Lebanese extension of the foundation was included in the 2010 US sanctions list for being an Iranian money-transfer pipeline for Hezbollah institutions.[10] 

The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation logo
The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation logo [11]

The foundation’s activities in Syria are linked directly to areas of strategic importance for Iran, which are critical to its Syria expansion plan. Thus, for example, the foundation acted in the Persian year 1392 (March 2013-March 2014), at one of the peaks of the civil war in Syria, in sensitive strategic areas where Iran aims to expand its influence, including Damascus, Al-Hasakeh, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Idlib and Aleppo.[12] These places are of strategic importance for Iran, located in sensitive areas throughout Syria, where there are advanced weapons facilities, Quds Forces central command posts, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias, Iranian weapons transport centers and strategic control positions.

The Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines

Since its initiation in 2003, The Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines has been one of the important channels through which Quds Forces operate in Iraq and Syria. The organization, according to its founding statement, is designed to renovate holy Shiite sites throughout Iran, Iraq and Syria.[13]In practice,  it serves as a secret platform for Quds Forces, helping them advance their subversive operations across Iraq and Syria. The connections between the organization and the Quds Forces are evident. Qassem Soleimani was a member of the organization committee until the day he died, and two senior Quds officials, Hassan Danaeifar and Hassan Pelarak, previously headed the organization.[14]

Holy Shrines’ Reconstruction Headquarters logo
Holy Shrines’ Reconstruction Headquarters logo [15]

The organization’s relations with Quds forces are well known to the US government. In March 2020, the US administration included the Iraqi branch of the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines onto the sanctions list. The American Treasury Department explained in its assessment that the association, ruled by the IRGC, had served the Quds Forces in order to send weaponry shipments to Iraq via an Iraqi corporation, the Kosar Company, also controlled by Quds Forces used by them as well to collect intelligence in Iraq and to transfer funds to Hezbollah.[16]

However, the organization’s operations in Syria remain legal. In March 2018, then, Chief of Staff Pelarak admitted that the association was also active in Syria. He said the association was renovating the holy places of Shiite throughout Syria, including Zaynab’s tomb (the sister of Imam Hussein) in Damascus, Tomb of Ruqayyah (daughter of Imam Husayn) also in Damascus,Tomb of Sakinah (another daughter of Imam Husayn), in Darayya, south of Damascus.[17]

Holy Shrines’ Reconstruction Headquarters, the renovation project of Zaynab's tomb in Damascus [18]

Accordingly, in November 2018, Pelarak, then Chief of Staff, visited Zaynab’s tomb in Damascus in order to get an impartial impression of the organization’s renovations, due to the damage caused in various attacks by ISIS forces and various Syrian opposition organizations during the war.[19]

It should be emphasized, Pelarak himself was included into the US sanctions list in March 2020,  as, according to a statement from the US Treasury, he had previously smuggled weapons into Yemen.[20]

Zaynab's Tomb in Damascus
Senior Quds Force and Former Head of the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines, Hassan Pelarak, Visiting Zaynab's Tomb in Damascus, November 2018 (first from left)

Thus, it seems that the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines appear to be part of the alleged civilian organizations intended to assist Iran’s establishment efforts in Syria, financing and arming the Shiite militias  operating there and may even be transferring financial assistance to the Assad regime.

Quds Forces operate in target countries, based and relying on diverse Iranian organizations. The inclusion of the three Iranian organizations analyzed in this research would serve the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and would serve the joint strategic goal of Israel and the United States in restraining Iran’s steps in Syria.

* Dr. Yossi Mansharof is an Iran and Shi’ite political Islam analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Alma center.

[1] Yossi Mansharof, “Iran and the Shiite Communities in the Persian Gulf: Transnational Pro-Iranian Shiite Networks, 1963-1989,” Doctoral dissertation, University of Haifa, 2019, pp. 233.

[2] Tasnim (Iran), June 30, 2018,https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/

[3] Statement made at the Command & Staff Course ceremony [class of] 6, Imam Hussein University, The Leader’s Website, (Iran), November 20, 1989.

[4] “Video: Saeed Qaseemi claims ‘We went to Bosnia under cover of the Red Cross and delivered military training to Mujahedeen forces'”, Entekhab (Iran), April 16, 2019 https://www.entekhab.ir/fa/print/471086

[5] Iran Regional Presence Office (The American Embassy in Dubai), to CIA, “Former Iranian Red Crescent Official Outlines IRC’S Auxiliary Role Assisting IRGC, MOIS”, (Secret), 23 October 2008,

https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08RPODUBAI49_a.html

[6]Hamshahri (Iran), April 20, 2013, https://www.hamshahrionline.ir/news/

[7] “For the First Time in the World an Aircraft Was Equipped with a Red Crescent Aerial Hospital”, Isna (Iran), November 11, 2015, https://www.isna.ir;

“Iranian Hospital Equipment in Lebanon, Assistance for Syrian Refugees,” Tasnim (Iran), May 23, 2014, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/;

“Biannual Report 2013-2014”, The Iranian Red Crescent, http://en.rcs.ir/uploads/7/2020/Mar/27/2013-2014%20Report.pdf

[8] Emanuele Ottolenghi and Saeed Ghasseminejad, “Khamenei’s Choice to Head Powerful Charity Bolsters the IRGC”, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 13 April 2015, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2015/04/13/khameneis-choice-to-head-powerful-charity-bolsters-the-irgc/

[9] “Iran: Alleged Ex-IRGC Member Lists Quds Force Fronts in Iraq, Claims to Represent ‘Those Inside'”, (Secret), U.S. Embassy in London to U.S. Embassy in Kabul, December 28, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07LONDON4680_a.html

[10] “Fact Sheet: U.S. Treasury Department Targets Iran’s Support for Terrorism Treasury Announces New Sanctions Against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force Leadership”, The U.S. Department of the Treasury, 3 August 2010, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg810.aspx

[11] Irna (Iran), May 14, 2020, https://www.irna.ir/news/

[12] Annual report of the Imam Khomeini Relief foundation for 1392 (March 2013-March 2014), Chapter 7, pp. 378,https://irandataportal.syr.edu/wp-content/uploads/Chapter7-5.pd

[13] Website;Holy Shrines’ Reconstruction Headquarters (Iran), “about us”, undated, https://atabat.org/fa/about

[14]”Qassem Soleimani’s Senior Advisor; Iran’s New Ambassador to Iraq”, BBC in Persian (London), January 15, 2017,https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-38628812; Holy Shrines’ Reconstruction Headquarters-Soleimani’s office.

[15]Tasnim (Iran), June 19, 2017, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/

[16] “Treasury  Designates Vast  Network of  IRGC-QF Officials  and  Front  Companies in Iraq,  Iran”, The U.S. Department of the Treasury, 26 March 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm957

[17] “The start of Iranian pilgrimage to Syria,” iqna (Iran), November 11, 2019, https://iqna.ir/fa/news/

[18] Abna (Iran), December 26, 2015, https://fa.abna24.com/service/pictorial/archive/2015/12/26/696638/story.html

[19] “The visit of the chief of the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines projects in Syria,” Iqna (Iran), November 19, 2018, https://iqna.ir/fa/news/

[20] “Treasury  Designates Vast  Network of  IRGC-QF Officials  and  Front  Companies in Iraq,  Iran”, The U.S. Department of the Treasury, 26 March 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm957

[21] Isna (Iran), November 10, 2018, https://www.isna.ir/news/

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Dr. Yossi Mansharof

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