The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) had its origins in pre-Revolutionary Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini’s loyalists organized underground charitable networks to provide relief to political prisoners of the Shah and finance other acts of subversion. On March 5, 1979, less than a month into the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini formally established the IKRC.
The formation of the IKRC represented an expansion of the Islamic Republic’s social contract with its citizens. Whereas religious-based charitable networks previously operated independent of the state, Khomeini believed that in an Islamic Republic, it was incumbent on the state to provide for the welfare of the “deprived and excluded,” particularly those Iranians who had provided the Islamic Revolution its popular backing. Tethering religious-based charity to the state has strengthened bonds of reliance and loyalty to the ruling regime among the recipients of IKRC aid.
The IKRC defines its mission as “providing livelihood and cultural support to the needy and underprivileged people living inside and outside the country in order to secure self-reliance, to strengthen and increase piety, and to preserve human dignity.” IKRC provides food, housing, educational, vocational training, and healthcare services to Iran’s poorest citizens, but also targets some aid, such as marriage dowry assistance and university scholarships, to middle-class and even affluent citizens in a bid to bolster patronage links to the regime. The former head of the IKRC boasted in 2010 that the organization had been “effective for national security,” as it successfully disincentivized aid recipients from protesting the regime, including during the Green Movement unrest following the disputed 2009 election. By fostering reliance on Iran’s revolutionary government among IKRC aid beneficiaries, the regime is able to “channel social and economic grievances held by poorer strata into a set of routine everyday interactions with the state.”
The IKRC derives its funding from three primary sources, the Iranian government, religious taxes and donations from individuals inside and outside Iran, and revenues from its vast economic complex. According to current IKRC head Parviz Fattah, a former IRGC commander, 75% of the organization’s funding comes from the government. Additionally, blue and yellow IKRC charity boxes are a ubiquitous presence throughout Iran, particularly in urban centers, collecting donations and religious alms from citizens. The IKRC reportedly has an annual budget of $2 billion and provides aid to approximately 9 million Iranians yearly. The IKRC is beholden only to the Supreme Leader and receives scant oversight from other branches of government. The organization was formerly headquartered in a “grimy” area of downtown Tehran, but now occupies a “lavish multiple-building compound” in the northeastern quadrant of the city.
Revolutionary Activities Abroad
The IKRC functions as the Islamic Republic’s primary aid distribution network outside of Iran’s borders, where it works to engender goodwill among foreign populations and spread the regime’s revolutionary ideology. The Supreme Leader coordinates with Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office for Expansion of Relations with Iranians Abroad to direct IKRC’s external charitable activities, distributing aid through a network of in-country offices, distribution centers, and educational institutes. The IKRC maintains offices dedicated to welfare, culture, and education in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Iraq, and Comoros, and additionally conducts philanthropic activities in Chechnya, the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Sierra Leone.
IKRC’s charitable works in these countries target the elderly, disabled, orphans, and other marginalized strata of society. Among the services provided are food aid, distribution of blankets and fuel, medical services, computer classes and vocational training, interest-free loans, and marriage assistance. Beyond pure philanthropy, the organization seeks to export Iranian culture and educate about Iran’s revolutionary Islamist principles, using charity as a foot in the door. Among the endeavors it sponsors in this vein are competitions among aid recipients testing knowledge on Ayatollah Khomeini’s Last Will and Testament. The IKRC also plays a leading role in agitating against the Islamic Republic’s chief adversaries, the U.S. and Israel, sponsoring and coordinating Quds Day demonstrations in host countries, as well as ceremonies commemorating the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s death. According to previous IKRC head Hossein Anvari, “The Islamic Republic of Iran benefits a great deal from IKRC’s diplomacy, which is indeed defensive diplomacy … [which aims] to neutralize threats against the Islamic Republic.”
The IKRC focuses heavily on providing relief and assistance to countries beset by conflict and natural disasters, exploiting weakened state structures to carve out inroads among the populace. After the Taliban government was toppled in Afghanistan, Iran dispatched an IRGC-Quds Force commander to coordinate Iran’s relief and rebuilding effort, which included drastically increasing the IKRC’s activities in the country in a bid to influence village leaders and poorer citizens. Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the IKRC raised over one billion rials to facilitate the rebuilding of Lebanese Shi’a religious infrastructure destroyed by Israel. In 2012, Iran dispatched the IKRC to Azerbaijan to aid displaced refugees following the Armenian invasion and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Following a sustained drought in Somalia, the IKRC opened an office in Mogadishu to provide food aid, sewing machines to create economic opportunities, and Quran learning centers. The organization partnered with the Basij following Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas, mobilizing Basij bases, mosques, and religious centers to fundraise on behalf of the reconstruction of Gaza.
Humanitarian aid organizations, like IKRC, provide cover for weapons smuggling and illicit finance. In February 2023, after a massive earthquake ravaged Syria, Iran sent convoys of trucks into Syria, bearing not only aid but weapons. The situation underscored how the IKRC serves as an effective means of conducting logistics operations, because the IKRC, like other soft-power institutions, can be difficult for authorities to sanction given its perceived humanitarian value. The IKRC has not been designated in its entirety by the U.S. government, but its Lebanon branch was designated, given that it functions as a financial mechanism for transferring funds to Hezbollah and other proxy groups. In 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s Lebanon branch due to its links to Hezbollah. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “The IKRC in Lebanon is a Hezbollah social service organization that was created by the Government of Iran in the 1980s and is directed and run by Hezbollah members or cadre. Iran has provided millions of dollars to the Hezbollah-run branch in Lebanon since 2007. The IKRC has helped fund and operate Hezbollah youth training camps, which have been used to recruit future Hezbollah members and operatives. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has acknowledged the IKRC branch in Lebanon as one of Hezbollah’s openly-functioning institutions linked to and funded by Iran.”