Religious-propaganda organizations under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei raked in unprecedented public money in the already controversial 2021/22 budget, research by Iran Open Data has found.
Friday prayers only resumed in Tehran on October 30, after a 20-month hiatus due to coronavirus. But despite the long off-period, and during a time in which the shuttering of businesses and inflation wreaked havoc on the wider Iranian economy, official figures show the money flowing into their and colleagues’ coffers more than tripled in a year.
In the 2020 appropriations bill, a budget of 29.5 billion tomans (US$7 million) was allocated to the Friday Prayer Policy Council (FPPC) and approved by the Iranian parliament without modification. In 2021, the originally-allocated budget was 35.3bn tomans ($8.4m); during the approval process, Iran’s new, conservative 11th parliament more than doubled the figure to 85.3bn tomans ($20.3m), or 189 percent more than the year before.
The FPPC replaced the previous Central Council of Friday Imams in 1993, on the orders of Ali Khamenei. It is considered an organization under his control and key disseminator of state propaganda; Friday imams function as Khamenei’s official representatives in the provinces.
The FPPC's budget is defined under the Islamic Propaganda Organization’s budget, meaning it is unclear how the money is being spent. Like other entities under Khamenei’s control, the FPPC’s financial performance is not published and the scope of its activities is not fully known.
On November 26 this year its chairman, Mohammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari, said “at least” 877 Friday prayer locations were supervised by the council. He added: “Two hundred new Friday Imams were hired in the last three years, and we had 500 turnovers, which helped renovate our workforce." Between 2016 and 2021, Iran Open Data found, more than 277bn tomans ($66m) of Iranian public funds have been handed over to the FPPC.
“Educational” Institutions Bag Record Budget Allocations
It wasn’t just the Friday imams that received an unexpected windfall from parliament during Covid-19. MPs also allocated twice as much money to the Supreme Leader’s Representation in Universities (SLRU) as the government had originally requested: a total of 211bn tomans ($50m) for 2021/22, almost double the 124bn allocated in 2016, plus 50bn tomans ($11m) in subsidies.
Most of this went to the SLRU itself, with smaller amounts going to entities named as the University of Islamic Education, the Institute of Islamic Culture and Education, Assistance to Universities’ Umrah, and Holy Shrines Headquarters. The first two organizations have never been named in the budget before.
Separately, Al-Mustafa International University (MIU) is due to receive record financing this year. This institution, also under Khamenei’s control, plays a crucial role in exporting the ideology and foreign policy of the Islamic Republic around the world through clerical training programs hosted in Iran and third countries. Al-Mustafa claims to “train mujtahids” and has been sanctioned in the US, where authorities believe it functions as a hub for IRGC intelligence operations.
Over the past decade, Iran Open Data calculated, more than 2.5 trillion tomans ($560m) of taxpayer money – before endowments or other non-transparent funding – have been spent on MIU. This is equivalent to the minimum monthly wage of 1.316,000 Iranian workers in 2020. And next year alone, it is due to receive 467bn tomans ($111m) from the budget.
MIU administrators have claimed in the past that the number of former and current foreign students “exceeds 80,000”. If this is true, then dividing MIU’s 10-year budget of 2.5 trillion tomans (560 million USD) by 80,000 foreign students, the indoctrination of each student cost the Iranian taxpayer around 31m tomans. By contrast, according to Iran’s 2019 fiscal budget, primary and secondary school students, and college students, cost the public a respective 4.3m and 5.2m tomans per capita.
Despite Past Claims, IRGC “Front” Gets $3m in Preferential Currency
The Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines (HRHS) is described by officials as a charity aiming to restore and protect the shrines of Shia Imams in Iraq and Syria. Outside Iran it is regarded by many as a front for the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force.
One of the Headquarters’ key board members is Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, head of the Office of the Supreme Leader. In 2014, Khamenei handed over its management to then-Quds Force commander General Ghasem Soleimani. US officials have sanctioned the Headquarters and claim it is secretly involved in spying, recruitment and money laundering, working hand in glove with the Islamic Republic’s militant regional proxies.
The financing of the HRHS has never been made public knowledge. Anecdotally, in 2016, one of its two main directors estimated it would need 300bn tomans ($750m) for its current projects, then at least 500bn ($120m) annually. Officials have previously claimed that HRHS projects are all financed by public “donations”, without government support. But in 2020, Iran Open Data found, HRHS received more than $3m in dollars from the government at a discounted rate.