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The Ayatollah Swindler: The Rise And Fall Of An Iranian 'Teenage Jihadist' 


Mehrshad Soheili crafted an image of being close to influential clerics in Iran. The 17-year-old has now been arrested on accusations of fraud. He is shown here with senior Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the godfather of Iran's hard-liners, who died in 2020.

Mehrshad Soheili has collected a number of plaudits from the Iranian media in the past few years. The 17-year-old has been dubbed the Islamic republic's "youngest commander" and a "teenage jihadist." He has been lauded, as the purported head of the registered Imam Mehdi Garrison, as the hidden imam. And as president of the Imam Sadegh Institute, his name has been associated with one of the spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad.

Photos of Soheili online show him next to influential clerics in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom, including Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, whom he reportedly met when he was only 13. Reports said that a book titled A Star From The West was published about Soheili when he was only 15 and that senior Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the godfather of Iran's hard-liners who died in 2020, attended the book launch.

In one photo, the 17-year-old "commander" was seen wearing a uniform of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In another photo he is seen alongside conservative politician Mostafa Mirsalim, a former police chief and culture minister, who ran for president in 2017.

Soheili, who will turn 18 in May and has reportedly not graduated from high school, even appeared on Iranian state-controlled television, where usually only regime insiders and hard-line personalities are given a platform.

He claimed in media interviews that he was involved in helping the needy, including thousands of young couples as well students in remote parts of the country.

Carefully Crafted Image

With his conservative appearance, his apparent ideological alignment with Iran's centers of power, and his connections, Soheili apparently duped many into believing he was a model revolutionary teenager who was devoted to the poor and the country's "martyrs." But on February 2, Soheili was arrested by the Intelligence Ministry, a judiciary official was quoted as saying by the official government news agency IRNA. Media, including the hard-line Mashregh news, reported that he faces charges of fraud and the usurpation of title.

When he receives a title like the commander of Mehdi Headquarters, there's no way it was done without coordination with a higher power, even if he's a very smart person."
-- Political activist Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar

Questions remain about Soheili's rise and those behind his carefully crafted image.

Mashhad-based political activist Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Soheili used state ideology for his own purposes, adding that his ascent was unlikely without support from powerful figures.

"Ideology becomes a tool for [him and others like him] to create a safe space for their activities, " Javadi Hessar said in a telephone interview.

"The political movement behind these types of people are organized to pave the way for economic achievements. When he receives a title like the commander of Mehdi Headquarters, there's no way it was done without coordination with a higher power, even if he's a very smart person," Hessar added.

A Tehran-based journalist who did not want to be named told RFE/RL that Soheili had contacts with IRGC officials, including Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the former commander of the Basji force; a former commander of the IRGC's Mohammad Rasoolollah Corps in Tehran Province; as well as a senior Basij official in the capital's municipality. A photo published by Iranian media shows Naghdi kissing the forehead of a young man who appears to be Soheili.

No Evidence Of Charity Work

The tides turned against Soheili after the news site Roozarooz and the daily Farhikhtegan started digging into his rise and his many claims.

Roozarooz interviewed poet Nematollah Davudian, who authored the book about Soheili. Davudian said a man identifying himself as a Qom-based cleric promised to pay 3 million tomans (about $700) if he wrote the book.

The IRGC has emphasized the need for younger commanders and the use of teenagers, who are often driven by economic interests rather than ideology, unlike IRGC commanders of the early years of the revolution."
-- Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi

"Soheili did not have enough friends and relationships for me to write about," he said, adding that, in the end, he wrote a text of about 70 pages and that he received only 700,000 tomans after threatening the cleric after he refused to pay up.

An unidentified senior IRGC official told Rouzarooz that "following a series of ambiguities, he was asked to distance himself for a while."

A reporter for Farhikhtegan who traveled to Soheili's hometown of Mussian in the Western province of Ilam failed to find evidence backing Soheili's claims about his charity work, including repairing thousands of housing units in deprived areas, distributing 2 million hot meals among the needy, and 10 million loaves of bread to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

According to the daily, which interviewed Soheili, the young man's accounts had a turnover of several billion tomans. The daily also alleged that Soheili spent some of the donations he received to purchase real estate under his relatives' names.

Germany-based Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi blames the IRGC for Soheili's rise, explaining that jihadi garrisons can be registered easily through IRGC websites and that there is almost no oversight over such entities.

Stories Being Deleted

IRGC officials have said that they have launched hundreds of jihadi garrisons in recent years, often claiming that they are involved in fighting poverty and helping the needy across the country.

"There's no monitoring of the finances of these garrisons and that creates the grounds for abuse. On the other hand, the IRGC has emphasized the need for younger commanders and the use of teenagers, who are often driven by economic interests rather than ideology, unlike IRGC commanders of the early years of the revolution," Mehrabi said.

Mehrabi added that there are other similar cases in smaller cities that have not received much media attention.

Amid the controversy, hard-line media deleted their previous reports in which they praised Soheili as the "teenage jihadist." Among them is the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency, which had reported that Soheili began his cultural activities when he was only 11 and founded a cultural institute in Ilam.

Following Soheili's arrest earlier this month, the hard-line news agency reported that the young man spent money to promote himself in the media as well as on social networking sites. Fars said that, as "a media reflecting jihadi activities," it publicizes such actions, while adding that it removed its past stories about Soheili following the clarifications of his motivations.

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