Iran's networks of influence in Britain revealed by think tank report

Henry Jackson Society says Iran is meddling in UK politics

Supporters of Scottish independence wave flags at a rally. AFP
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Iran has amassed considerable soft power in Britain through a series of political and religious networks, a think tank report has found.

The Henry Jackson Society said a number of UK-based charities, schools, and mosques have ties and shared objectives with figures in Iran.

It said Iran sought to take advantage of sympathisers across the spectrum of British politics, including on the far left and far right.

Highlighting a series of pro-Iranian groups, the report said they had not committed any wrongdoing but showed that “sympathy for the Islamic Republic of Iran is a significant entity in our politics”.

One group called the Islamic Human Rights Commission was described as the most consistently pro-Iranian political voice in London.

The report said the IHRC had ties to Iran’s ruling elites, with one of its directors appointed to Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in 2019.

The IHRC organises an annual rally for Al-Quds Day, a festival created by Iran’s late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Another group called the Islamic Centre of England was described as the religious organisation with the clearest ties to Khomeini.

An Iranian ambassador spoke at the centre in 2019 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

A candlelit vigil was held there following the US drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in January 2020.

The report also mentioned an organisation called the Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission which publishes translated versions of statements from Iran’s rulers.

It said the mission venerates the late Khomeini and has a bookshop advertising works by supporters of the Iranian regime.

The mission said in response to the report that it worked with Islamic scholars on religious matters but was not affiliated to the government of Iran.

Another group mentioned was the Ahl Al Bait Society Scotland, which hosts an annual Peace and Unity Conference in Glasgow.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was due to speak at the event in 2019 alongside Iranian cleric Mohammad Shomali, but withdrew before it took place.

“Iran possesses considerable soft power in the United Kingdom, with sympathy for Tehran and its ideals existing across a wide spectrum of political and religious actors,” the report said.

“These sympathisers and supporters may be found in a surprisingly broad range of arenas, and take in sections of the political left, the far right, sections of the Shia Muslim community, and even conspiracy theorists.”

Fears over Iranian meddling in politics

The report repeated earlier claims by the Henry Jackson Society that Iran was seeking to interfere in UK politics by encouraging Scottish independence.

It said Iran had repeatedly been caught meddling in British elections and that its efforts were likely to be ongoing.

“Iran must now be seen as a top tier threat, with similar intentions to Russia,” said the report’s author, Dr Paul Stott.

Iran’s interference in Scotland is thought to date back to at least 2013, the year before its first independence referendum.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB) was allegedly involved in using fake accounts to promote its messaging.

This included pro-independence cartoons which attacked then-UK prime minister David Cameron as a symbol of English oppression.

Scotland voted against independence in 2014 but the issue resurfaced after Britain voted to leave the EU, against Scotland’s wishes.

An election in May returned the pro-independence Scottish National Party to power for a fourth straight term.

In the run-up to the election, Facebook said it had removed Iranian accounts which posted about Scottish independence, among other subjects.

The social media company said it had removed 446 accounts linked to Iran which had targeted Britain, as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

It is thought that Iran would like to see Scotland break away in order to undermine the UK’s international power and influence.

The UK is at odds with Iran over the jailing of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, among other issues.

“Iran has shown itself to be a country that disseminates disinformation online and establishes fake websites and internet accounts in its attempts to disrupt the political systems of those it considers to be its enemies,” the report said.

“It has been caught doing this repeatedly. Judged within this context, Iran is likely to continue disrupting our elections.”