Saturday , 25 September 2021

Catch Me If You Can in Iran

Iranwire – He’s posted pictures of himself dressed in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uniform, next to Ayatollahs and Grand Ayatollahs, from Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, to Naser Makarem Shirazi, to Mohammad Alavi Gorgani. He’s introduced himself under such titles as “Commander of Imam Mehdi Garrison” and “President of the Imam Sadegh Institute”. He’s delivered speeches about jihadi and charity campaigns.

He’s only 17. But, in the past two years, Mehrshad Soheili Ilami’s name has been cited over and over by news agencies and media outlets associated with the regime – usually under headlines like “The Youngest Commander” or “The Jahadi Teenager”

Mehrshad Soheili Ilami was born in 2004 in the western province of Ilam. His life story and CV were announced in the presence of none other than Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. He has also been photographed next to Mehran Ahmadi, a famous Iranian actor and movie director.

Then, all of a sudden, the reports stopped. Somewhere in the Iranian state media apparatus, a penny had dropped: this enterprising teenager had no achievements to his name, save for having scammed his way to the top eschelons of Iranian society.

Who is this 19-year-old hustler from Ilam, and how did he managed to become “commander of a garrison” at 17?

The strange story of Mershad Soheili Ilami was recently addressed in an investigative report written by Fatemeh Karimkhan and published by the website Roozarooz. The following is a summary of her report.

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Mehrshad Soheili is a 19-year-old from the city of Mousiyan in the western province of Ilam, whose name again came to the attention of Twitter users after he congratulated Ebrahim Raisi for his victory in the presidential election.

Now, though, most news items about this teenager published by news agencies such as Fars, Tasnim and Moj have been removed. Earlier, he had twice appeared on TV, named as the Commander of the “Imam Mehdi Garrison”.

“The Imam Mehdi Cultural Institute, the Imam Mehdi Garrison and, recently, Imam Sadegh Cultural Institute, are three titles Mr. Soheili has used on different occasions,” Roozarooz explains. 

But it goes on: “The Imam Mehdi Cultural Institute and Imam Sadegh Cultural Institute either do not exist or, if they do, Mehrshad Soheili could not have registered them. The reason is simple: he has not reached the legal age to be allowed to do the legal work for this.

“Registering a [pro-state] jihadi group, however, is simpler. The Construction Basij of Prophet Mohammad Corps. has an online system for registering such outfits. Anyone can choose any name and, as far as we know, Mehrshad Soheili must have registered his jihadi entity on this system as well. 

“Obviously, choosing the name ‘Garrison’ and applying the title of ‘Commander’ outwardly turns a  volunteer-led Basij organization into a military organization, and that is what Soheili has done. It is not clear what agency supervises the registration and the activities of these jihadi groups.”

Mehrshad Soheili also had paper with special letterheads printed for his group. With these, he was able to secure meetings with the top Ayatollahs. “In 2017, when he was just 13,” Roozarooz reports, “Soheili requested a meeting with Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi by sending him a letter under the letterhead ‘Imam Mehdi Institute’ – and it was granted! 

“He used the same tactic to meet with Grand Ayatollah Musa Shubairi Zanjani and a number of other religious authorities in Qom. It’s not clear why these authorities agreed to host a 13-year-old. But this boy of 13 knew well how things get done in Iran… This is just the beginning of a long story.”

Mehrshad Soheili Ilami: The “Biography” of a Teenager

On February 17, 2020, it was reported that Soheili’s biography, compiled by Nematollah Davoodian and Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), would be published imminently. A few days later the book was indeed unveiled, in the presence of none other than Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

But, Roozarooz’s Fatemeh Karimkhan says, “When I called Masoumeh Omidi, the director of IRNA’s office in Ilam, and asked her about the book, she said she knew nothing about it.

“Nematollah Davoodian, the poet who lives in Ilam, told me more about the book. He said a clergyman by the name of Mr. Beheshti who lives in Qom had contacted him and asked him to write a book about Soheili for three million tomans [US$725]. 

“But: ‘Soheili did not have enough friends and relationships for me to write about. So I called the office of that clergyman, talked to him about Soheili, and, in the end, wrote a text of about 70 pages. 

“I submitted it, but they didn’t pay me. When I threatened that I would go to Qom to get what I was owed, they paid me, but only 700,000 tomans [$170] instead of three million.’

“When I asked him who Mr. Beheshti was, what his connections were and for whom he worked, Mr. Davoodian said he did not know. Of Soheili himself, he said: ‘I still don’t know what his job is, exactly what he does or how he has registered an “institute”, but I know he contacts the authorities under this title. For example, he goes to the mayor and asks him to help his “institute”. I asked him a few times to show me who he had helped, but I couldn’t find any of the beneficiaries he named.”

It was also reported that Soheili’s biography had been published by Zana Publishers. Roozarooz asked Zaher Saraei about the book: “Mr. Saraei says that although Zana did not have a contract it did all the legal work for publishing the book and got the permit for it from the Ministry of Culture but Mr. Beheshti who had introduced himself as connected with the office of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi when he had placed the order for printing the book had not contacted the publisher for paying the costs of printing and distributing of the book. Mr. Saraei says that he has not seen Mr. Beheshti and the news that it has been published is not true.”

The reporter for Roozarooz also asked the mayor of Mousiyan about Soheili: “In an interview for this report, the mayor of Mousiyan at first claimed that Soheili was working for the ‘garrison’ and had ‘connections’. 

“When I asked what garrison he was working for, who had authorized him and what his connections were, he said: ‘In any case he was able to bring [Revolutionary Guards General Mohammad Reza] Yazdi to Mousiyan. 

‘And he also brought [film actor] Mehran Rajabi to Mousiyan three times. So he must have connections, no?’ 

“The mayor also said that Soheili had been able to ‘help people’ through his connections but he refused to say who had directly provided the aid to Soheili for him to distribute.”

The “Ghost” Supporters of Mehrshad Soheili

Who are Beheshti and other public supporters of Mehrshad Soheili, who claimed to be clerics associated with the office of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi?

Investigations by Roozarooz found that these individuals did not exist. In fact, it was Mehrshad Soheili himself who had introduced and recommended himself, under a series of fake names: “The book’s publisher and writer never saw ‘Mr. Beheshti’, who claimed he was calling from the office of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi about the book. Nor has anybody ever met the individual by the name of Mr. Pezeshki, who also introduced himself as a clergyman and employee of the ‘Imam Mehdi Garrison’ public relations office.

“Mr. Rahimi, the mayor of Mousiyan, says he has never met Mr. Soheili accompanied by anybody else. In the pictures published of his meetings with religious authorities, and also of his so-called garrison’s press conference in Qom, we see only Soheili himself. And the mobile phone number that ‘Beheshti’ used to call reporters was the same one that some journalists had saved as Soheili’s number.”

Even in the aftermath of this investigative report’s publication, the 17-year-old Soheili is still actively promoting himself on social media. He continues to upload pictures in which he describes himself as “Commander of the Imam Mehdi Garrison” and the “Director of the Imam Sadegh Institute” on Instagram, where he has more than 49,000 followers. 

In his latest post on July 21, he quoted a sentence ostensibly spoken by Ayatollah Alavi Gorgani at a supposed “meeting”, accompanied by a picture of himself (but without the Ayatollah):

“Ayatollah Alavi Gorgan, continue in a meeting with Mehrshad Soheili Ilami: Subversions and sabotage must never hinder you from moving ahead on the turbulent road of serving the nation. We hope that you young people will succeed in traversing this road and be more active and more persevering.”

Original Source: Roozarooz Website

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