By Irina Tsukerman
The Middle East Forum’s explosive new report highlights the widespread international network of Islamic Relief’s charities and their close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. That charity, a s sprawling international network, has not changed even after the Islamic Relief’s cofounder, Hany El-Banna, retired from official representation. Through close connections to Hamas-backed charities in Gaza, dedicated transfer of funds to Hamas-led charities, intimate links to other charities known for financing terrorist causes and organizations, and origins with people like Essam El Haddad, a foreign policy adviser to the now-deposed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, Islamic Relief has been deeply enmeshed in promoting Islamist ideology and serving as a seemingly legitimate Western front for Muslim Brotherhood’s agendas.
Haddad, who, despite seemingly retiring from Islamic Relief’s operations, opened an Islamic Relief branch in Cairo while serving as a government official in Morsi’s administration. That branch had support of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, received a large donation from its parent branch in UK, and was used as a cover to fund the Muslim Brotherhood operations in Egypt, while appearing to engaging in legitimate charity activities.
In 2013, in his official capacity, the report reveals, Haddad met with Iran’s spy chief, Qassem Soleimani in Cairo “to advise the Government on building its own security and intelligence apparatus, independent of the national intelligence services.”
At the same time, then-president barack Obama, whose administration likewise met with Haddad, adopted policies favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton openly calling for Morsi’s release after he was arrested by Sisi’s government after the coup. For instance, the administration signed a law that made the allocation of aid to Egypt contingent on progress in human rights. However, when Morsi came to power, there was no evidence of such progress – yet aid continued to flow.
Interestingly, the Obama administration used the language of “moderate Islamists” to describe the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and he called Iran’s President Rouhani, a “moderate” reformist, despite the rise of human rights violations in Iran on Rouhani’s watch. Muslim Brotherhood, too, on the surface rejected violent jihad, preferring to fund various proxies who either directed these attacks or educated individuals who then went on to carry out acts of terrorism. Reformists in Iran played the same game, and likely learned from one another.
There are two fascinating issues here. First, Morsi was friendly to Iran, as indicated by his visit to Tehran in 2012 – and illustrating an important policy shift. He was later accused of leaking state secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In retrospect, given the highlighted meeting between Haddad and Soleimani, that accusation likely had some basis in reality. What is interesting is that prior to coming to power, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran were more likely to be considered ideological competitors rather than friends. Iran, as it now appears, would gladly coopt any group willing to further it ends.
As we now know, Iran assisted the September 11 al-Qaeda terrorists, and furthermore gave shelter to al-Qaeda inside Iran as part of a special arrangement, eventually even helping the terrorist organization to rebuild itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand was better known for sponsoring terrorist proxies and ideological movements that reflected its Islamist ideology. Yet at the core, revolutionary Sunni Islamism, despite different religious precepts from Iran’s Shi’a based Khomeinism, was based in similar political principles and methods. The fraternization between Morsi’s Brotherhood and Khamenei- led Iran should have been less of a surprise than it was.
The ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Shi’ite Khomeinists predate the Islamic Revolution. Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei translated two of Sayyid Qutb’s – one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologists and the intellectual father of al-Qaeda – most important work into Persian. Clearly, Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology influenced the very precepts of the Islamic Revolution in Iran; its founders certainly were inspired by the revolutionary zeal and the methods of spreading the message. These works have been spread far and wide throughout Iran, and are perhaps two of the most widely read Islamic tracts. The two Islamist movements are “similar ideologically, though not theologically.” Indeed, the secretary general of Jamaa Islamiya in Lebanon has been known to say: “There are only three schools of thought when it comes to Islamic Awakening: School of Hassan Al-Banna, School of Sayed Qutb and School of Imam Khomeini.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “The Brotherhood is closest to Tehran among all Islamic groups.”
Indeed, when then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had visited Morsi’s government in Ferbruary 2013, he stated that Egypt is Tehran’s gateway to the region.
The history of coordination of specific operations between Muslim Brotherhood and Iran does not begin or end with Egypt. In the 1990s, Iran backed Hassan al Turabi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who helped orchestrate the military coup in Sudan in 1989. Interestingly, Omar Bashir, the seventh president of Sudan, and one of the leaders of the same coup, has been a loyal Saudi ally until recently. The country is part of the Arab Coalition in Yemen, fighting against the Iran-backed Houthi rebellion.
At the same time, however, the Bashir regime has cut military defense deals with Qatar and Turkey, both countries funding or allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar is also closely aligned with Iran, and hosts Youssef Qaradawi, one of the contemporary spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2016, when Iranians assaulted the Saudi embassy in Tehran, leading to an open rift between the two countries, the Muslim Brotherhood remained silent. The Brotherhood was also receptive to other overtures by Iran.
Iran’s meddling in Africa did not stop with Morsi’s outing, although Tehran shifted its onus of activity to Libya and to other Western African countries, growing its relationships with Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia after the attack on the Saudi embassy. Egypt for now, is off limits.
However, Muslim Brotherhood proxies scattered throughout Africa may still hold the key towards destabilization of allies hostile to Iran’s hegemonic ascent. Furthermore, Iran continues to invest a lot of money in promoting Shi’ism not just in West Africa and the Maghreb, but in Egypt as well.
Indeed, given the evidence of connection between Islamic Relief figures who were also active in politics and Iran, the political commingling and funding of mutually beneficial causes and groups by the Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic should be investigated and targeted.
Both Muslim Brotherhood and Iran support Hamas, but what other terrorist groups and proxies have benefit from the arrangement briefly alluded to by the meeting between Haddad and Soleimani? The other issue that has not yet been examined was the timing of the events. While Morsi’s officials, such as Haddad, were negotiating the building of a new and separate intelligence apparatus for Iran, the Obama administration was involved in secret nuclear deal negotiations with the Islamic Republic. A discerning reader may conclude a couple of things from this revelation. First, the Iran regime was not negotiation with the United States and others in good faith. It had belligerent motives, and further, was looking towards fostering a clandestine apparatus separate and apart from its powerful national intelligence mechanism. What is the nature of the services that the Muslim Brotherhood was promising to help develop remains unclear; whether Iran was ever successful in creating yet another agency and what purpose it was supposed to serve likewise needs to be examined. But at that time Iran clearly intended to increase its level of covert and clandestine activities far beyond its contemporaneous capabilities, and likely for reasons hostile to Western interests.
Whether or not that had anything to do with covering up clandestine nuclear research remains a mystery worth uncovering. Another view of the issue is that Iran was helping the Muslim Brotherhood build a separate intelligence apparatus in Egypt. If that is the case, questions remain. Was Iran looking to utilize this apparatus inside Egypt for its own illicit activities? Did it pursue the same strategy with other countries? Are there perhaps additional informal intelligence apparati in Turkey or other countries aligned with Tehran in some way? Has Iran created a sub rosa extension network modeled after its own clandestine groups across the world? Second, the issue of the Obama administration’s open support for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government may not be as much of a contradiction in light of the nuclear deal ambitions as previously thought.
As we now know, Obama’s red line in Syria was nothing but a ruse to please Tehran and ensure the success of the deal. Given that the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be an important and growing partner for Iran, which viewed Sissi as significantly less interested in cooperation, perhaps the White House pursued the same line in Egypt, as it did in Syria – protect Iranian interests and the potential for the nuclear deal at all costs. How much did the Obama administration know about Muslim Brotherhood’s joint plans with Iran and when did it know it? How strong are the connections between various Muslim Brotherhood proxies, such as the Islamic Relief, and their Iran-funded counterparts? The Islamic Relief report is the first step to finding out.