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The Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines: From repairing religious sites to the accusation of large-scale money laundering

May 18, 2021

Officials in Tehran call the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines (HRHS) a charitable organization that helps rebuild and maintain the shrines of Shia Imams and other religious sites across several countries including Iraq and Syria. The agency falls under the auspices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

Washington, However, sees HRHS as another source for the IRGC’s overseas spying and money laundering schemes. The United States believes that HRHS is secretly involved with the Islamic Republic’s Iraqi proxies, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq.

HRHS was established in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime when Iran pushed hard to expand its influence in Iraq. One of the most important board members of the organization is Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, the head of the Office of the Ayatollah Khamenei. In 2014, Iran’s Supreme Leader handed the organization over to General Qassem Soleimani, the then commander of the IRGC Quds Forces. Soleimani, seen as a prime enemy by Washington, was killed in a January 2020 US airstrike in Iraq. 

At the start of his six-year tenure, Soleimani made the decision to divide the organization into two parts: executive-construction and supervisory. Management of the executive-construction division was assigned to Mohammad Jalal Maab, and the management of the supervisory division was given to Hassan Pelark, a well-known IRGC commander in Iraq and Syria with a long history of economic and commercial activities within the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In March 2020, the United States sanctioned Mr. Maab, Mr. Pelark, and the HRHS. The US Treasury officials at the time accused the organization and its top executives of laundering millions of dollars under the cover of charity through the Iraqi company Bahjat al Kawthar Company for Construction and Trading Ltd, also known as Kosar Company.

Even without Washington’s allegations, the HRHS has come under public scrutiny among the people of Iran. As the country continues to struggle with sanctions, a falling currency and the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency, and its expenditures is struggling with the optics of spending so much money on religious sites abroad while the average Iranian is left to deal with high unemployment, a currency that is constantly facing devaluation and the coronavirus with little to no government help in getting back on their feet.

Budget and Financial Resources

To this day, no HRHS official financial document has been made public. There is also no specific line item in the current Appropriations Bill for the HRHS.

The closest disclosure came in 2016, when Pelark estimated that the organization needed 300 billion tomans ($750 million) by the end of 2021 for its projects. He went on to say that HRHS would need at least 500 billion tomans ($120 million) annually. Referring to the purported grassroots nature of the HRHS, Pelark called on the Iranian public to help make up for the budget shortfalls. He also encouraged government agencies and private enterprises to kick in their share.

Mr. Pelark's counterpart, Jalal Maab, recently said HRHS projects are financed by general public donations, claiming that the IRGC-linked organization operates without any government support.

Available official Iranian data, however, shows that only in 2020 HRHS received more than three million dollars from the government at a discounted rate. 

HRHS claims that so far it has completed more than 200 different projects in Iraq and Syria. The majority of these projects have been implemented in the predominantly Shia cities of Iraq, including Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Kadhimiya.

A list of 69 HRHS projects in Iraq and Syria are available from here.

This article was originally published in Persian (available here).