December 28, 2020
A senior Iranian commander made an unannounced visit to one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites in the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala in September. According to Iranian media, the senior officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) Quds Force Hassan Pelarak was inspecting a construction project conducted by a firm he owns together with other members of the IRGC which is directly linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Pelarak has been recently put on the U.S. sanction list for weapon smuggling.
Pelarak is a former IRGC commander who has served in the IRGC’s Quds Force which has a track record of disguising operatives such as Hassan Danaeifar, Iran’s former ambassador to Iraq. Other Quds officer disguised as retired employees in civilian functions to facilitate operations.
Over the past few years, the construction site at Imam Hussein in Karbala has been visited by Pelarak and other senior members in the Quds Force, including the former chief of Quds Force Qassem Soleiman who was killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad Airport back in January. An Iranian source in Kerbala told Reuters that Soleiman’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, made an unannounced visit to the shrine two weeks after the last Pelarak’s visit.
In January 2016, Pelarak was appointed as an advisor to the First Deputy to the President on expanding economic relations with Iraq. The head of the IRGC’s engineering arm announced at a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader on September that year the inauguration of two phases of a massive project to expand a Shiite shrine in Najaf, Iraq. The IRGC’s giant firm Known as Khatam al Anbiya Construction Base has collaborated with the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines for a project to develop and expand the shrine of Hazrat Zahra, which is part of the Imam Ali shrine complex in Iraq’s Najaf.
In 2010, the US Treasury had accused Khatam al Anbiya Construction Base of helping the IRGC generate income and fund its operations through involving in the construction of streets, highways, tunnels, water conveyance projects, agricultural restoration projects, refineries and pipelines.
The Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines which was established following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the supervision of Iran’s supreme leader has been involved in extensive projects in Iraq. In addition to restoring and developing sacred Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Kazemein, the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines oversees hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrimages to Iraq and also has a presence in Damascus, Syria, where the Zeynab shrine is located.
The corporation has conducted 200 projects in Iraq which are worth of millions of dollars in expanding shrine complexes and building medical, civil, teaching, and cultural facilities, while it has planned to build more projects valued at approximately $1.6 billion. The corporation claims that its finances received from fundraising from its offices in all provinces in Iran that constitute donations from Iranian individuals, in addition to government-linked institutions.
According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in addition to Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Hassan Pelarak and three senior clerics who are members of the supreme leader’s office, the former commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani sit on the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines’ board of trustees council. Soleimani had been given that position within this firm because had been heading the Quds Force which could use the infrastructure of this corporation to funnel weapons, manpower, money, equipment, and supplies into Iraq under the guise of serving the Shiite Muslims.
In March, Washington sanctioned the Headquarters and its Iraq-based engineering wing Kawthar. Pelarak was among officials targeted for involvement in “lethal aid” to proxy Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, intelligence activities and money laundering. The U.S. Treasury said that Kawthar served as a base for Iranian intelligence activities in Iraq, including the shipment of weapons and ammunition to Iranian-backed terrorist militia groups. However, according to the Iraqi customs official who spoke to Reuters, Iran did not need Kawthar, an organisation focused on trade and soft power, to transfer weapons. “There are other ways of doing that – their proxy militias control the borders from the Kurdish north to the south of Iraq,” the source said.
According to Reuters’s report, Iraq’s government grants religious projects special privileges, including tax exemptions on imports of Iranian cement, steel and other materials. Many of these goods are brought into Iraq ostensibly for shrine development but are then sold elsewhere in the country.
Domestically, increasing the revenue of Iraq’s religious tourism which is worth billions of dollars a year is also expected to revive Iran’s economy which is greatly dependent smuggling US dollars to Iran by proxies who are controlling banks in Iraq. A Treasury spokesperson told Reuters that Iran sought to expand its influence and exploit Iraqi financial and business sectors. The project is a cover for the Quds Force, the IRGC’s s extraterritorial operations branch, and has decade-long history in Iraq. Conducting such project enables Quds Force to support the Iranian-backed Shiite network in Iraq and expand Iranian influence in the country.
Economically, Tehran seems to believe that close involvement in the religious tourism in Iraq will cement Iran’s presence in the Iraqi religious centres that are the nexus of Shi’ite regional influence. Controlling the development of the Shiite shrine in Iraq will improve the economy of Iran which has been suffering from a major downturn since the outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. Regionally, the giant firm has also undertaken some development projects in other ally countries such as Syria, and Lebanon, extending its services as a soft power tool for the Islamic Republic.
The extension development of Imam Hussein which is one of the largest multi-million dollars projects conducted by IRGC through Kawthar foundation will also allow millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims from across the world to access the holy shrine. In Tehran’s view, this multi-million worth-project of expansion at Imam Hussein will dwarf the Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.