On February 3, 2022, Facebook pulled down an Iranian disinformation network that aimed to stoke “religious war” and “fear and hatred” against Jews in Israel.
The move from Facebook comes 15 days after the platform disabled Iranian profiles on Facebook and Instagram that posed as Scottish citizens pushing disinformation about the United Kingdom’s government. A week before that, Israel’s Shin Bet (a law enforcement arm that is similar to both the FBI and Secret Service) said that Iranians were using Facebook to recruit women inside Israel to photograph sensitive sites such as the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
While Facebook has been officially banned in Iran since 2009, many Iranians still use the network to push religious and cultural propaganda in favor of the Iranian government and its extreme ideology.
Our analysts identified a U.S.-based organization using Facebook to push pro-Iranian propaganda for this brief.
Elhaam Magazine is a subsidiary of the Yaseen Educational Foundation, which is based in California. The Facebook page for Elhaam Magazine has 4,060 likes.
On January 31, 2021, Elhaam Magazine posted a photo of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, to its Facebook page. The image has a caption that reads, “Between him and you, there is always a spark of hope.” The picture received 92 likes with shares from U.S. persons and a foreign national using former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani for a profile photo.
Elhaam posted another image of Khomeini on its Facebook page on January 7, 2021. Further review of both photos shows that they were shared by Sohali Sarani, an Indian national living in Qom, Iran, the heart of extremist Shi’a scholarship in the Middle East. Sarani shares a lot of pro-Iranian propaganda, including videos of Khomeini, Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Seyed Hashim al-Haidar (a radical and influential cleric in Iraq who supports Hezbollah and is connected to Iran’s supreme leader).
In addition, Elhaam has posted images of Morteza Motahari, who was a close friend to Khomeini and chairman of the Council of Islamic Revolution until he was killed in May 1979. On January 10, 2022, Elhaam posted an image of Motahari to its Facebook page, which was “liked” by a U.S. person from California, living in Tehran, Iran.
Elhaam also has a YouTube channel with 6,000 subscribers, where it promotes content that features comments from Khomeini and other radical ayatollahs who have since passed or are living in Iran.
While Elhaam’s website is no longer functional, using the Wayback machine shows that they are also linked to people who studied in Qom, Iran. U.S. nationals who study in Qom, Iran, return indoctrinated, with anti-Western views and supporting the beliefs of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Overwatch identified four different individuals writing for Elhaam, who studied in Qom.
- In 2019, Sayyed Abbas Razavian, a California native, studied in Qom for 20 years.
- In 2015, Hasan Kashani, who studied in Qom.
- In 2014, Ustada Sabika Mithani and Hafidha Soheyla Aryan, who both studied in Qom, and have lived in California, posted articles to Elhaam’s
Additionally, Elhaam has a donation page through givingfuel.com. Analysts identified the donation page receiving shares on Telegram as recent as January 24, 2022.
The active donation page is problematic because public records show the parent organization of Elhaam, the Yaseen Educational Foundation, which was a non-profit, dissolved as of February 5, 2022.
The Yaseen Educational Foundation, which has pages on both Facebook and Instagram, hasn’t had any social media activity since January 23, 2022. However, a review of the Yaseen Educational Institute’s Facebook profile reveals additional connections to sheikhs who studied in Iran.
- On January 5 and 6, 2022, Sayyed Abbas Razavian was the main speaker at a Yaseen Educational Institute event.
- On October 28, 2021, Sheikh Ahmad Modaress, who is from Mashhad, Iran, was a guest at Yaseen’s event in Los Angeles, California.
- On June 10, 2021, Sheikh Navid Charooseh, a U.S. national who studied in Qom for over nine years, performed the Dua Kumayl (a significant Shi’a prayer) at an event sponsored by Yaseen.
- From August 31, 2021 – to September 10, 2019, Sheikh Salim Yusufali, a Canadian national who studied in Qom, was the lecturer for a several-day event Yaseen sponsored.
Elhaam’s active social media accounts could provide a vehicle to influence U.S. persons to study in Qom, Iran, returning to the U.S. to spread the extremist ideas of Iran’s leadership. While one might suggest an organization like the Yaseen Educational Foundation register as a foreign agent, The Foreign Agents Registration Act has exemptions for “religious” and “scholastic” entities. The fact that Elhaam’s donation page remains active, despite the Yaseen Educational Foundation being dissolved also raises concerns about the magazine’s ethics and transparency.
Providing a platform for Elhaam to share its pro-Iranian propaganda on Facebook and YouTube indicates that major social media companies may need to invest more resources to fully assess accounts that share narratives in line with hostile foreign governments.