The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, appears to be using a financial conglomerate in Iran to fund his activities in Iraq, establishing and extending Iran’s long reach in the region.
Soleimani, who leads a ring of IRGC commanders and strongmen from his hometown province of Kerman, has appointed a new chief at the Headquarters for Reconstruction of the Holy Shrines in Iraq, the former mayor of Kerman Mohammad Jalalma’ab.
Meanwhile, Soleimani appointed the former chief of the headquarters, Hassan Polarak, another man from Kerman, as head of the headquarters’ financial cartel in Iran, which among other things funds Soleimani’s activities in Iraq. Polarak is also Soleimani’s special assistant.
The headquarters has been active in Iraq since 2003, when it was established based on advice by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no clear link between the HQ and the IRGC’s Quds Force, although it operates under the aegis of the force.
In fact, Soleimani appointed the HQ’s new chief in his capacity as the commander of the Quds Force. This indicates that the headquarters is operating as part of the Quds Force, a part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that operates outside Iran, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Furthermore, Khamenei’s office also exercises its influence on the HQ. Several of its officials have been directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei’s office. However, Polarak, a confidant of Soleimani’s, has been running the headquarters for the past 15 years.
The headquarters’ activities in Iraq have been officially defined as “religious and urban development activities in Iraq.” It is active in various Iraqi cities including Najaf and Karbala, where major Shi’ite shrines are located. It also has an office in Syria that is tasked with the reconstruction of Shi’ite shrines in that country.
Some 3,000 Iranians are said to be working with the headquarters in Iraq.
Polarak and his son Hadi established Yeganeh Andish Sarmayeh Company in 2009 as the first step to building Soleimani’s “private sector” financial enterprise.
The enterprise includes several other companies including a car manufacturing firm, an auto part importer, a poultry food production company, and a company that imports cosmetic products.
The Polaraks later handed over all these companies to the IRGC’s financial conglomerate Yas Holding, which became well known following the revelation of major corruption cases in February 2018.
It is still not known whether removing Polarak from his post at the Headquarters for Reconstruction of Holy Shrines had anything to do with the corruption case.
Polarak has also worked as an adviser to Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri for several months in 2016.
In a March 2016 report, Polarak said that the headquarters’ annual budget was 500 billion tumans (roughly $120 million) adding that the HQ is going to carry out 3,000 billion tumans (around $720 million) worth of projects during the next six years.
These include 156 projects in Iraq and Syria, which indicates how widespread the headquarters activities are.
Various parts of the IRGC sometimes compete over the benefits of these projects. A $580 million project started by the HQ was finally grabbed by another part of the IRGC, the Khatam ol-Anbia, and was hurriedly opened before completion by Khamenei’s Chief of Staff Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani in April 2016.
The development projects usually combine religious activities with tourism, placing hotels, restaurants, shops and parking areas next to refurbished shrines, making them a hub to assimilate funds.
Meanwhile, the HQ, receives some tens of thousands of dollars every year in donations and through selling souvenirs. In one form of donation, people buy a precious Persian carpet and donate it to HQ. The HQ puts the carpet on display for some time at a shrine, and then returns it to Iran and sells them at a much higher price as a sacred souvenir.
The Headquarters for Reconstruction of the Holy Shrines in Iraq runs a vast network across Iran and in Iraq to conduct transactions like this. However, it has been criticized at times for a lack of transparency in its financial transactions.