Saturday, May 18, 2024

Businesses and Bonyads: How Pistachios Finance Pro-Iran Radicalism in the United States

ResearchInvestigationsBusinesses and Bonyads: How Pistachios Finance Pro-Iran Radicalism in the United States

Since the revolution, the fate of the Iranian pistachio has shadowed the vacillations of Western diplomacy with Tehran. From the 1979 revolution to the 2015 Iran deal, dramatically varying tariffs and various transitory bans have all exerted a marked effect upon Iran’s billion dollar export of one of Persian cuisine’s most beloved ingredients.

That the Iranian pistachio should suffer is not in fact unreasonable. The seed may be a proud symbol of Persia, but it is also an important asset of the most violent components of the Tehran regime and its terror-focused enforcers, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Indeed, the bulk of the pistachio industry in Iran is controlled by proxies of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC. These proxies are just one segment of the regime’s vast empire of businesses and bonyads, a type of charitable trust, key to Tehran’s system of economic control.

It was under Iran’s President Hashemi Rafsanjani that the regime rapidly expanded ideas of economic permeation and the accompanying use of charitable trusts to ensure complete ideological domination. And indeed, it was with the pistachio that Rafsanjani and his family made their own personal fortunes. In his home county of Rafsanjan, in Iran’s Kerman province, business boomed for the Rafsanjanis and other Iranian pistachio producers and their regime overseers before and after the revolution.

But Iranian pistachio expertise also came to America. Today, scores of Iranian-Americans are involved in the American pistachio industry, which overtook Iran’s at some point after 2014, propelled by American innovation and unburdened by a terror-financing command economy.

Among the success stories of Iranian-American pistachio producers, however, the hand of Rafsanjani can still be felt.

In southern California, much of the local Iranian diaspora is familiar with the Amin family. Enormously wealthy, the members of the Amin family collectively control tens of thousands of acres of American pistachio orchards, along with a processing plant, real estate, and decades of success establishing and developing other businesses, from a “talking yellow pages” business and a chain of photo development stores, to production companies that have worked with some of Hollywood’s best-known stars.

The Amins are blood relations of the late President Hashemi Rafsanjani. At least, Rafsanjani’s brother claims as such.

An extensive investigation by the Middle East Forum has uncovered that – as with the Rafsanjanis and the regime’s system of businesses and bonyads – in Iran, the Amins remain closely involved today with the regime and the IRGC-controlled pistachio industry, while, in the United States, the family uses its wealth to fund a wide variety of radical causes.

The Amins in Iran

Perhaps the most important figure within the Amin family is Ali Amin, whose grandfather remains lionized on regime websites today, and whose father and uncle helped establish pistachio production in America. Today, Ali Amin and other family members own a series of companies and orchards, controlling tens of thousands of acres of land. Chief among these companies is Primex International Trading Corporation, or Pitco.

But along with Pitco and other companies, Ali Amin and members of his family retain business interests in Iran. This has attracted federal scrutiny in the past. In 2015, Ali Amin pleaded guilty to transporting $17 million illegally to the United States from Iran, using his web of companies and other Amin family members to do so.

In Iran, it was Ali’s company, Amin Padidar, that effected these illegal transfers. Multiple members of the Amin family in the United States own Amin Padidar, in a power sharing agreement with an enormous regime conglomerate known as Golrang.

While federal prosecutors may have targeted the Amin family’s financial smuggling, they were perhaps unaware of (or – in the same year as the Obama administration’s Iran deal – lacked the political capital to investigate) the Amins’ collaboration with regime institutions, including multiple banks, businesses and bonyads sanctioned by the U.S. government.

In just the last few years, Golrang has, for instance, signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with regime institutions such as the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, the Islamic Revolution Housing Foundation (part of the IRGC), as well as Bonyad Mostazafan.

Bonyad Mostazafan is particularly important. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, upon designating it, described it as a “an immense conglomerate of some 160 holdings in key sectors of Iran’s economy, including finance, energy, construction, and mining … used by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime’s enemies.”

Bonyad Mostazafan claims to own “95-96% of the pistachio collection terminals in [Iran’s] Kerman province.” The Amin family collaborates with the Bonyad in Iran through a trade association known as the Iran Pistachio Association. Our investigations found that this body’s members include IRGC officials and various personnel tied to the Supreme Leader’s office and other facets of the Islamist regime in Tehran.

On the Iran Pistachio Association’s website, Ali Amin’s brother, Michael Amin (also based in Los Angeles), seems to be listed as the association’s most generous financial sponsor. Meanwhile, Ali Amin, and his company Pitco, regularly appear in the Association’s in-house magazine and webinars hosted by the regime-linked group.

IPA officials have even travelled to the United States to meet with Ali Amin at trade fairs. It is unclear how members of this IRGC-linked Association secured U.S. visas.

Ali is also involved with the Pistachio Authority of Iran, a group that claims to be under the control of the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry. Biographies of Amin family members adorn the regime group’s website, and analysis and media provided by Ali Amin is regularly posted on the group’s Telegram channel.

Has the Amin family secured licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to engage in these transactions and provide services to these regime entities?

There’s more in which OFAC should be interested. For instance, multiple other members of the Amin family (including Ali’s own mother, aunt and cousin) control various charitable endeavors in Iran. The regime has applauded these efforts, with regime officials honoring Amin family members at public ceremonies reported on enthusiastically by regime media.

Ali and Michael Amin’s own mother, Parvin, even established and ran a charity in Iran for decades that operates in close partnership with OFAC-sanctioned Saman Bank. Indeed, Iranians can donate to Parvin’s charity at Saman Bank ATMs across Iran.

Fatemeh and Nusrat Amin Honored by Regime Officials

The Amins U.S. Non-Profit Network

The Amin family’s regime ties and this considerable wealth serves, ultimately, to benefit radical causes in the United States. Grant-making foundations controlled by the Amin family members have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of extremist organizations.

Recipients include the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which critics have repeatedly accused of working to advance Tehran’s interests in the United States. Multiple members of the Amin family can be found attending NIAC events, and even serving on its board.

The Amin charitable foundations also fund a D.C. thinktank, the NIAC-linked Quincy Institute, which multiple journalists and a former Iranian diplomat have argued also advances a pro-Iranian (and occasionally pro-Russian) agenda.

Other beneficiaries include extremist conspiracy theorists such as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, Islamist-linked outlets such as Electronic Intifada, and overtly pro-terror organizations such as the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees.

Tracking the flow of money yields some interesting results. Around the same time one of the Amin family’s foundations financed the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, that beneficiary in turn handed $20,000 to Max Blumenthal, the prominent, unashamedly pro-Putin journalist and conspiracy theorist.

That same year, Blumenthal published a lengthy article denouncing the family behind America’s largest pistachio producers for being at the “heart of America’s Israel lobby” and working to “[fuel] the assault on Iran.” The Resnick family own the Wonderful Company, and happen to be rivals of the Amins.

Curbing Foreign Influence

The full investigative report, published at Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), uncovers many more details about the Amin family’s activities in both the United States and Iran. It is just one of several investigations the Middle East Forum will publish over the next year looking at foreign Islamist regimes’ abuse of the 501(c) system.

As various congressional committees prepare to examine the continued danger of extremist foreign influence in the United States, there are growing calls, as well as multiple pending legislation, for OFAC and the unit behind the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to be given more teeth.

Networks such as the Amin family, which fund radical causes through the 501(c) system while maintaining ties with hostile foreign regimes, can be found all across America. This is not solely an Islamist problem, and requires the immediate attention of both Congress and the Administration.

In the meantime, Americans might want to choose their packet of pistachios a little more carefully. 

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