An Iranian cleric student looks at the courtyard of Faiziyeh religious school in Iran’s clerical capital Qom, 18 May 2005. (AFP)

By Ali Akbar Ebrahimpour

December 15, 2020

The Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute is one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest investments in making the country’s seminaries integral to the way the country is run. It is also a powerful tool for propaganda.

This institution bears the name of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini. Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, one of Iran’s most influential political forces, is its head. However, during Khomeini’s lifetime, Mesbah Yazdi held almost no position in the power structure of the system.

This power was granted to Mesbah Yazdi, who is sometimes referred to as Allameh, meaning savant, philosopher, or sage, during Ali Khamenei’s leadership, and he has gradually established a crucial role in the seminaries and become a prominent public figure. He has also bolstered Khamenei’s public image, presenting him as a flawless figure who has never made any mistakes. “Ayatollah Khameneihas been in power for 30 years and faced the most complex social issues of the day. There is not one example of him making a mistake, which is surprising and unique, especially in a world where world leaders make many mistakes on a daily basis.”

Opponents of Mesbah Yazdi attribute his promotion and success entirely to Khamenei, firstly because of his role in “theorizing violence” exerted by Khamenei’s supporters, and secondly because of his belief in an “Islamic state” — not an Islamic Republic. As a result of these two ideological pushes, critics say, Khamenei promoted Mesbah Yazdi from among dozens of ayatollahs, thereby consolidating his own position and edging out Ayatollah Khomeini’s strongest allies and supporters.

Mesbah Yazdi, who is allocated a large budget for the institute, was appointed as a member of the Assembly of Experts for a period, and joined the Qom Seminary Lecturers Association. He was not, however, elected to sit on the Assembly of Experts in the 2017 elections, a situation that Khamenei described as “a loss”.

Critics also point out that Mesbah Yazdi was never detained during the shah’s reign as many others who carried out “revolutionary struggles” against him were.

The Budget

Large government funds were poured into the institution when Mesbah Yazdi founded it in 1995, and he was able to set up in Qom on a 7,000-square-meter plot of land with a 25,000-square-meter building spanning eight floors.

The prestige Khamenei bestowed on Mesbah Yazdi made his institution a stable cost in the country’s budget, which is set by Iran’s treasury. The amount allocated to the institution increased dramatically after he established strong connections with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Ahmadinejad’s eight-year presidency.

In 2005, the institute’s budget was 3 million tomans [$120,000]; in 2006 it increased tenfold to 3.5 billion tomans [$140,000). This trend of increasing its budget continued: in 2008, it was raised to 7 billion tomans [$280,000]; in 2009, it dipped to 5.1 billion, but then was increased to 8.3 billion in 2010, and 10 billion in 2012. With President Rouhani in place, the rise in funding continued: 10.3 billion in 2015, 11.5 billion in 2016, 14 billion in 2017, 21.5 billion in 2018, and 28 billion [$1,120,000] in 2019.

To bring these figures into perspective, the total budget for Iran’s environmental affairs, which includes combating air pollution, is approximately 403 billion tomans [$16,120,000]. This means that the environmental budget is less than 5,000 tomans per every Iranian.

Propaganda Abroad: ”Doctors Hojatoleslam”

Although the institution under Mesbah Yazdi’s management behaves as though it is positioned within the seminary system, its educational system is similar to that of universities, offering Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctorate degrees.

The institution is governed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic in accordance with the statutes approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. The board of trustees and the institution’s president are elected by the leader, and its policies cannot go against the will of the ruling system, clear evidence that it operates as a propaganda tool.

So what is the function of the institution? What are its goals?

“I, for my part, appreciate Mr. Mesbah,” Khamenei has said. “I really know what weight he has in the country and for Islam, and honestly, we have very few like him today. With this scientific weight, scientific depth and command, and with this awareness, insight and purity … God Almighty, preserve this person for us and the revolution.”

Khamenei’s high esteem for Mesbah Yazdi’s scientific knowledge and inner purity is linked to his “Islamization” of humanities in line with the “velayat model,” a reference to velayat-e faqih, the underpinning ideology of the Islamic Republic that dictates that the clergy, under the Supreme Leader, holds the highest authority.

The institution under Mesbah Yazdi upholds this value, and, as a result, it is a practical outlet of Khamenei’s main strand of propaganda, and has an educational remit to propagate the “acceptance of velayat” by people “inside” and “outside” the institution. As part of this, the institute runs ideological and political courses called “velayat and insight” in all parts of the country, attended by members of the voluntary student wing of the Revolutionary Guards, the Basijis, as well as scholars, staff, students, and social groups.

“After the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the enemies saw their material life was in danger and sought to weaken and distort the beliefs of the young generation,” the institute has stated in its definition of the velayat model, which it describes as “one of the ways to counter this aggression.”

In fact, it has established a whole suite of velayat models, all at a considerable cost. There is a students velayat model, the velayat model for teachers, one for elite members of society, and another for seminary students. Along with the “insight model”, there are courses on how to inaugurate velayat models. There is the wisdom model, the knowledge model, the Salman model, the hijab and chastity model and so on. All of these courses can be studied across the country, delivering the institution’s key propaganda message everywhere.

The institute has set out its most important educational and research goals:

— Applying Islamic knowledge in different fields of humanities

— Training people with knowledge in Islamic education and humanities to deal with deviant and eclectic ideas

— Training staff and faculty members of the seminaries and the universities

But these publicly-stated goals constitute only a small part of the task at hand. There are other, “undeclared” aims:

— Gaining support from and leading the principlist faction within Iranian politics and society;  that is, the politicians and thinkers who view themselves as close to the original core principles on which the Islamic Republic was founded.

— As part of this push, the institution launched the Stability Front to ensure it has considerable presence in parliament. At different times, the Stability Front has put forward prominent figures to sit in parliament, including Ruhollah Hosseinian, Morteza Agha-Tehrani, Mehdi Kouchakzadeh, and Mohammad Ismaeil Kowsari.

The institute has also promoted a puritan image of the Islamic Republic at home and abroad, using its graduates, whom it refers to as Doctor Hojatoleslams, to establish academic relations with foreign universities.

In particular, these Hojatoleslam doctors are positioned within Canadian and United States universities. McGill University in Montreal ‌is one of the more famous universities where the doctors have gained support.

In one case, a letter was leaked to the media revealing that Mesbah Yazdi had demanded $150,000 from Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president at the time, so that he could send 20 students from his institute to Canada and the United States.

Perhaps more crucially, some of these scholars, including Morteza Agha-Tehrani, a principlist member of parliament, have obtained green cards, allowing them to remain in the United States. The bizarre state of affairs has understandably attracted a good level of public commentary around the world. Given the relationship between the Islamic Republic and the US, it is extraordinary that an individual who has made his anti-Americanism clear, and who has such close links to Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the head of one of Iran’s most elaborate propaganda outlets, has been granted such access to the US.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.