A Pakistani national and two American citizens have been charged in the US with moving dollars collected as a religious tax from America to Iran on behalf of the Iranian Supreme Leader in 2018 and 2019.
Ali Chawla, 36, a Pakistani national, and Muzzamil Zaidi, 36, a US citizen, both residing in Qom, Iran and Asim Naqvi, 36, a US citizen who lives in Houston, Texas were all charged with violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Zaidi was charged with acting in the United States as an agent of the government of Iran without first notifying the Attorney General.
The maximum penalty for a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act is 20 years. Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the charges stem from the defendants' "campaign to transport US currency from the US to Iran on behalf of the Supreme Leader of Iran" in 2018 and 2019.
Both Zaidi and Naqvi were arrested in Houston Tuesday. "Disrupting Iran's ability to raise US dollars is key to combating its ability to sponsor international terrorism and destabilise the Middle East, including through its military presence in Yemen," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said.
He added that Zaidi, Naqvi, and Chawla allegedly raised money in the US on behalf of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also a religious figure, and illegally channelled these dollars to the government of Iran. Acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said that the case is significant on many levels "since the defendants have considerable operational links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)", which the State Department has designated a foreign terrorist organisation.
"The life-blood of these terrorist operations is cash and the defendants played a key role in facilitating that critical component." Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office James Dawson said the charges demonstrate America's commitment to preventing agents of hostile foreign governments from having access and freedom to operate within the borders of the US.
The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint said that Zaidi "offered his services to the Supreme Leader of Iran" in July 2015 and said that he could serve the "Islamic Republic in the socio-political or another field." The complaint alleges that Zaidi travelled to Syria around June 2018 and while he was there, flew to an active war zone in an armed Iranian military or intelligence aircraft.
It added that Zaidi had access to bases under the command of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including a 'Sepah Qods' (IRGC Qods Force) base. The US designated IRGC as a terrorist organisation in April 2019. Qassem Soleimani, a Major General in the IRGC, was commander of the Qods Force until he was killed in a US airstrike in January this year in Iraq.
According to the complaint, in December 2018, Zaidi and other members of an organisation known as 'Islamic Pulse', including Chawla, received the permission of the Supreme Leader of Iran to collect khums, a religious tax, on the Supreme Leader's behalf, and to send half of that money to Yemen. In July 2019, Islamic Pulse released video soliciting donations for its purported Yemen campaign that showed money moving from the US and other Western countries to Yemen through Iran.
The complaint alleges that Chawla replied to donors' concerns about how the campaign was able to get money into Yemen by stating that the matter could not be discussed over email. The complaint further alleges that Chawla sought US dollars specifically,stated that Islamic Pulse could not accept electronic transfers, and admitted that it was not a registered charity. The complaint alleges that in summer and fall 2019 Zaidi and Naqvi continued to collect US currency in the United States and have it transported it to Iran, sometimes via Iraq, structured in such a way as to avoid reporting requirements.
Prosecutors said in the complaint that during his current stay in the United States, which began in June 2020, Zaidi has "exhibited behaviour that is consistent with having received training from a foreign government or foreign intelligence service, such as the government of Iran or IRGC." According to the complaint, that behaviour includes a reluctance to discuss matters over the phone, or even over encrypted applications, because Zaidi claims that doing so could be dangerous.