The Dissolution of Imam Ali Society: Khamenei’s Move Against NGOs

March 5, 2021, 7:01 p.m.

Iran Human Rights (IHR); March 4, 2021: An Interior Ministry motion for the dissolution of the Imam Ali Popular Student Relief Society (IAPSRS), one of Iran’s leading and most prominent civil society charities, has been granted by Branch 55 of Shahid Beheshti Judicial Complex in Tehran.

Established in 1999 by a group of Sharif University students, the organisation is run entirely by a network of volunteer members, which currently stands at least 10,000 across Iran according to their managers.

"The dissolution of this society and the pressure on NGOs, at least in Tehran, is a policy pursued by the Office of the Supreme Leader, under the supervision of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei," an informed source told IHR.

According to the source, a working group called “Eradicating Deprivation,” currently operating under the auspices of the Office of the Supreme Leader, intends to rid of other NGOs working in the social care sector.

With more than 40 centres in the most rural areas across Iran, Imam Ali Society is one of the most successful NGOs working in the social care sector on a host of issues including poverty, education, healthcare and supporting children affected by addiction and crime, especially juvenile offenders, and child workers.

The NGO currently supports more than 6,000 women and children in their education, health, employment and living costs.

There is a long history of pressure by security agencies on Imam Ali Society. On 26 April 2018, the NGO issued a statement announcing that the hacking of the Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Telegram accounts of a number of its members had been “organised.”

According to the NGO’s managers, the hacking took place despite the account holders using a “two-step login.” A number of technical experts opined that the hackings could only have taken place with cooperation from the Ministry of Communications. The Ministry of Communication however, never addressed the allegations.

The mounting pressure on the Imam Ali Society continued until its founder, Sharmin Maymandinejad as well as their compliance officer, Katayoun Afrazeh and head of public relations, Morteza Keymanesh were arrested on 21 June 2020 and closed the NGOs main headquarters.

Shortly thereafter, referring to Sharmin Meymandinejad’s arrest, the IRGC affiliated Tasnim news agency cited an informed source who accused him of “networking to influence public opinion at different levels” by setting up the charity and doing the public sector’s work.

The IRGC affiliated website also accused Imam Ali Society members of “blasphemy and promoting deviant anti-religious thoughts.” This accusation was later repeated in the Ministry of Interior’s statement on 17 August 2020, when they set a 20-day deadline for the NGO to change its structure. Following the expiration of the deadline, Zahra Rahimi, the organisation’s managing director and Sharmin’s wife, was arrested on September 6 and released the next day.

In late February, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement calling for the dissolution of Imam Ali Society and stated that a motion had been filed with the judiciary. 

The statement reads: “It is clear that any social phenomenon, along with the positive functions that are formed based on its set goals, may for various reasons, deviate from its goals over time, and not only lose the necessary ability to perform positive actions, but can become a new social problem that needs to be prevented from spreading in a timely manner by applying measures and guaranteeing legal enforcement so that the body of the holy system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not damaged.”

Despite efforts by a number of lawyers and legal experts, and despite protests by a large number of social media users, the court ruled in the Ministry of Interior’s favour on March 3.

The NGO’s “administrative independence from the government" and the efforts of security agencies to influence Imam Ali Society decisions by participating in board elections and the members’ refusal to accept the security agencies’ candidates, is considered another reason for the pressure.

Concurrently, there have been unconfirmed reports of attempts to replace the Imam Ali Society with the government affiliated “Imam Reza Society.”

The Imam Reza Society is led by Hossein Yekta, a member of the IRGC Ammar base central council, one of the commanders of the “plain-clothed” agents responsible for the suppression of the 2009 nationwide protests, a former member of the Habib Battalion and Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader’s close associate.

However, these are not the only reasons for the dissolution of Imam Ali Society.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source told IHR: “A working group called ‘Eradicating Deprivation’ has been formed under the auspices of the Office of the Supreme Leader and involves several government agencies, including the Imam Khomeini Relief working group, the Imam's Executive Headquarters and the Khatam al-Anbia Base."

“The ‘Eradicating Deprivation” working group has focused its work on the suburbs and slums in Tehran, including the Darvaze Ghar,  Bagh Azar, Atabak and similar neighbourhoods," the source said.

According to the source, the working group has been spreading their reach in these neighbourhoods for some time: "In some suburbs, such as Darvaze Ghar, several jihadi bases, including the Imam Reza Base, were set up in previous years, and now the ‘ Eradicating Deprivation’ working group is inviting neighbourhood  development offices to participate in their activities."

Neighbourhood development offices are affiliated with urban planning consulting companies and work in collaboration with Renovation Organisation of Tehran.