As activists outraged over the killing of Mahsa Amini continue to protest against the Iranian regime, dissidents in the United States complain that a member of an Iranian paramilitary organization now lives, works, and studies in Minnesota. The student in question, Mahdi Ansari, appears to have been a student leader of the Basij, a paramilitary organization currently attacking people in cities throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran.
According to one Iranian news outlet, Ansari called America “evil” and Westerners “bullies,” while attending college in Tehran. None of this stopped Ansari from getting a visa to study at the University of Minnesota, where he is currenlty a Ph.D. candidate, nor did it stop him from working at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis for a year.
The story broke in early October, when Iranian dissidents reported on Twitter that Ansari headed the Basij at Sharif University in Tehran, and is now a graduate student studying economics at the University of Minnesota. One dissident claimed in a photo-laden Tweet that Ansari “met with Khamenei for the last time in 2017 along with other members of Sharif’s Basij,” before traveling to the U.S. the same year.
The Basij is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), both of which the U.S. Department of the Treasury has designated as terror organizations. In addition to recruiting child soldiers, the Basij plays a central role in suppressing dissent on behalf of the regime. One recent report indicates Basij members have threatened protesters with violence, declaring they would behead their own family members to keep the regime in Tehran in power.
Both American and Iranian webpages appear to corroborate the allegations posted on Twitter against Ansari, who has not responded to requests for comment from FWI via email and his LinkedIn account. While it’s possible that the student at the University of Minnesota named in the Tweets is a different Mahdi Ansari than the student leader of the Basij at Sharif University, numerous data points, including photos, indicate they are the same person.
For example, a LinkedIn page bearing the name and picture of Mahdi Ansari lists his education at Sharif University from 2010 to 2017 followed by schooling at the University of Minnesota beginning in 2017.
The account identifies him as a current “Graduate Researcher” at the university and a Ph.D. candidate, class of 2023. An official at the University of Minnesota confirmed to FWI that, “we have at least one Ph.D. student by that name, Mahdi Ansari, enrolled on the Twin Cities campus.” A now-hidden page on a University of Minnesota website (which has been archived here) displayed a picture of “Mahdi Ansari” at a school conference in 2018. (The photo is displayed below.)
Prior to coming to the United States, multiple pro-regime outlets, including Defa Press, Javan Online, Student News Network, and Iranian University Student News (IUSN) reported on Ansari’s work as head of Sharif University’s Basij.
In 2015, IUSN reported that Mahdi spoke at a press conference with other Basij student leaders, regarding the 2015 nuclear deal.
Speaking to Press TV, Iran’s state-owned media, Mahdi made his antipathy to the West clear. “The Sharif University of Technology Basiji students’ position is to support the nuclear negotiating team, especially vis a vis the bullies, the Westerners, and the evil America, and we say to our negotiating team, who have undergone an exhausting experience, God is strong,” he said.
He called the United States “our main opponent” and encouraged the destruction of Israel, while referring to Saudi Arabia as “America’s stray dog” and President of Türkiye, Recep Erdoğan, as “a toy in the Americans’ hands.”
“After this agreement,” he said, “the Americans claimed that the agreement is a means for maintaining Israel’s security, but I say it will increase the desire of the Iranian nation and the global Muslim community (ummah) to destroy Israel.”
That same month Defa Press reported that Mahdi and his fellow Basij members sent a letter to General Soleimani, then Quds Force Commander of the IRGC. The 2015 student letter asked permission, “to form an operational Quds division in order to struggle against Zionists.”
The letter included a passage from the writings of the regime’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini who declared that Israel would never be safe from destruction whether or not Iran signed a nuclear deal with the West.
“The Leader has drawn up a plan of operation in order to accomplish the goal of destroying the usurping Zionist regime,” the letter continued. “Iranian students have decided to follow the words of the Wise Master (Khomeini) who said that ‘Today, Israel is spreading division with all its evil tricks, it is necessary for every Muslim to arm himself against Israel.’”
The letter to Soleimani continued with a list of goals, which included military training for students, organized hacking attacks on “Zionist institutions,” and building a propaganda machine to “raise the consciousness of young people in the heart of the arrogant countries [a Khomeinist term for Western nations].” The same letter predicted the eventual defeat of the United States and its allies in the region, declaring they “have lost their morale due to repeated failures, and their hasty decisions make their space for action narrower and narrower for them.” (Five years later, the recipient of the letter was killed in a U.S. drone strike.)
Student News Network reported that Mahdi left his position as head of student Basij at Sharif University in June of 2015. But he reportedly attended a Basij medalist award ceremony in January 2017 with Ayatollah Khamenei, pictured below.
According to his LinkedIn page, Ansari began studying at the University of Minnesota in 2017, a few months after meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Mahdi’s LinkedIn page also boasts of his work for the Iranian Parliament as well as his work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Earlier this year, Mahdi bragged in an online post, “I am pleased to announce that I will be joining Analysis Group, a leading economic consulting firm, as a summer associate in the Boston office in the upcoming summer. After my insightful experiences in the policy institutions, now, I am looking forward to learn (sic) consulting in the business sector.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to FWI’s request for comment, but a State Department spokesperson stated that the information associated with Ansari’s visa application is confidential, adding however, that “Every prospective traveler to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. Prohibiting travel to the United States by those who might pose a threat is key to protecting U.S. citizens at home.”
Ansari’s connections came to light as the Basij is carrying out the regime’s bloody assault on the people of Iran. Last week Basiji students barricaded students at Sharif University, where Mahdi formerly served as head of the organization.
It is well within the realm of possibility that a member of the Basij is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota says Lawdan Bazargan, an organizer of Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRIA), a group protesting the presence of former Iranian diplomat Mohammed Jafar Mahallati at Oberlin College. Mahallati is accused of covering up a mass killing of political prisoners perpetrated by the Iranian regime in the late 1980s.
“Most Iran Islamic Regime agents and lobbyists start from universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and McGill, which have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Iran Islamic Regime’s so-called NGOs such as Alavi Foundation, and then move to other universities,” Bazargan said, adding that Mahallati lectured at Columbia and Harvard before ending up at Oberlin. “It is shameful that elite U.S. and Canadian universities put profit ahead of their countries’ national security.”
Jaleh Tavakoli, spokesperson for Free Iran and a counter-Islamist activist in Denmark, wonders if Ansari’s presence is part of an Iranian influence operation in the United States.
“The regime in Iran has always had a very strategic approach in both lobbying and brainwashing to spread its propaganda in both Western and non-Western countries, in various ways to promote the regime’s agenda,” she said. “These are their terms to expand the revolution. The Iranian opposition wants these pro-government entities sanctioned, restricted in all ways and also sent back to Iran.”
Susannah Johnston is FWI’s investigative reporter.