Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech alongside an Iranian cleric who compared gay marriage to bestiality, the JC reveals today.
Scotland’s First Minister appeared with Dr Mohammad Shomali – who has served as an official representative of Ayatollah Khameni, the supreme leader of Iran – at the annual Peace and Unity conference in Glasgow in 2017 and 2018.
In an essay published the previous year, based in turn on lectures he gave in 2007, Dr Shomali wrote: “A hundred years ago, it would have been unthinkable for gay marriages to be sanctioned… Perhaps a day will come where some will desire marriage with animals.”
In 2019, when the conference came around again, Ms Sturgeon chose to shun the evening event that featured the cleric after criticism from a former MEP.
But Ms Sturgeon nevertheless attended other parts of the 2019 conference. There she gave a speech alongside another controversial Muslim leader, Azzam Mohamad, whom she described in glowing terms as “a dear, dear friend of mine”.
Mr Mohamad had recently returned from a pro-Palestinian conference in Beirut that featured speeches by the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and the deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, who insisted on “resistance by weapons”.
The influential Scottish Muslim figure has twice signed a letter lobbying the Mayor of London to allow the Quds Day rally – which traditionally involves the burning of US and Israeli flags and chants like “death to America” – to go ahead.
Mr Mohamad is strongly linked to a charity called the Ahl al-Bait Society, which has received hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants from the Scottish government. In 2015, he took former First Minister Alex Salmond on an official visit to Tehran.
It comes as a JC investigation reveals the extent of the SNP’s connections with Iranian regime sympathisers. Last weekend, Facebook and Twitter deleted hundreds of fake, pro-nationalist accounts set up by the Ayatollah’s army of trolls.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “Ministers are absolutely committed to a welcoming and inclusive country where everyone can celebrate their identity, regardless of background, culture, religion or sexual orientation. Hate, prejudice or discrimination of any kind have no place in modern Scotland.”
LONG READ: Nicola's Iranian friends
By Jake Wallis Simons, Deputy Editor
It may seem strange that the Iranian regime would concern itself with the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is gearing up to contest an election on a rainy island almost 4,000 miles away.
But this week, Facebook and Twitter announced that they had shut down hundreds of fake, pro-SNP accounts which it had traced to Tehran.
Whatever its agenda, the theocracy clearly takes an interest in Scotland. And today, a JC investigation reveals that the most senior figures in the Nationalist movement – including the First Minister – have serious questions to answer.
Pictures we have unearthed reveal that in 2017 and 2018, Nicola Sturgeon gave speeches at Islamic events in Glasgow alongside Dr Mohammad Shomali, an Iranian cleric who served as an official representative of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
“You’re helping us to play our part in building a better world,” the First Minister said in 2017, with Dr Shomali sitting in front of her.
“One where children of all races, faiths and backgrounds feel safe, cared for and loved.” She then took a seat at the top table to listen to Dr Shomali – who is known for his hardline anti-homosexual views – deliver a lecture of his own.
That same year, the cleric was photographed posing with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, while receiving an award for “interreligious dialogue”.
In 2016, he wrote an academic paper based on lectures he had delivered almost 10 years before, in which he compared gay marriage to bestiality: “Perhaps a day will come when some will desire marriage with animals.”
The Iranian-born cleric is a leading figure at a controversial Maida Vale institution called the Islamic Centre of England, where he is described as the group’s “resident Imam and director”.
Last year, the centre was investigated by the Charity Commission after it staged a candlelit vigil for the notorious Iranian major-general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by an American missile.
One speaker at the vigil caused outrage when he was filmed saying: “We work hard to make sure that there will be many, many more Qasem Soleimanis.”
The Islamic Centre of England makes no secret of its close ties to the Tehran regime. Its “Memorandum”, finalised in 2006, couldn’t be clearer: “At all times at least one of the trustees shall be a Representative of the Supreme Spiritual Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
For some of these reasons, perhaps, the Scottish leader must have realised that she had made a mistake in appearing alongside the hardliner.
Two years later, in 2019 – after Struan Stevenson, a former Conservative MEP, raised concerns about Dr Shomali – the First Minister pulled out of a shared appearance with the cleric at a re-run of the same event, the Peace and Unity conference in Glasgow.
But Ms Sturgeon did not stay away entirely. Although she avoided any association with Dr Shomali, in a session called “Question Time with the First Minister”, she delivered another speech, this time alongside a controversial Scottish community figure called Azzam Mohamad.
In a speech, the First Minister described Mr Mohamad as “a dear, dear friend of mine.
“He has done, and continues to do, so much,” she said. “Not to just talk about the principles of peace and unity, but to live and embody the principles of peace and unity.”
The previous year, Mr Mohamad had been pictured at a “Global Convention of Solidarity with Palestine” in Beirut. Gilad Atzmon, the notorious antisemite, was presented with an award, and speeches were given by the deputy secretary general of Hezbollah and the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
In his speech on Israel, the Hezbollah official, Sheikh Naim Qassem, committed to the use of violence. “We shall not replace resistance by weapons with other forms of resistance, until this enemy surrenders,” he said, “and surrender it will.”
On two occasions, Mr Mohamed signed open letters to the Mayor of London to lobby for the continuation of the Quds Day rally – an Iranian carnival of anti-Western hatred where the flags of Israel and America are traditionally burned to ash.
Mr Mohamad has long been a key figure in the Ahl al-Bait Society, a charity that supports Muslims in Scotland and that was behind the Peace and Unity events attended by the First Minister.
In 2011, he was disqualified from holding a directorship of any company for six years. But he continued to be involved with the charity. According to the Muslim Council of Scotland website, he is now “Business Managing Director” of Ahl al-Bait, which has been awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in grant money by the Scottish government.
Mr Mohamad’s links with the Scottish Nationalists are long-standing. The Lebanese-born Scot took Alex Salmond, then the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman, on an official trip to Iran in 2015 and was “influential in staging the visit”, according to reports at the time.
The Ahl al-Bait Society sits at the heart of a network of influence that reaches deep into the SNP. In May, Humza Yousaf, the party’s justice secretary, joined an all-male online panel organised by the group.
And in February, Aileen Campbell, a SNP politician and former communities secretary, participated in an Ahl al-Bait online conference that featured Dr Shomali – with whom the First Minister had refused to share a stage the previous year – as one of the prominent speakers.
In a further revelation, the SNP is fielding a candidate in the upcoming election who has apparent sympathies for the Iranian regime. Ali Salamati, who is slated to contest a seat in central Scotland in May, has attended the controversial Quds rally in central London, where he was identified in another picture obtained by the JC.
He has also shared a post on Facebook praising Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, for defending Iran’s right to pursue a missile programme.
In May, Mr Salamati participated in an online conference to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, when religious hardliners took over in Iran, transforming it into a hardline theocracy.
That event was staged by the Islamic Centre of England, where Dr Shomali has long been a leading figure. An SNP spokesperson said: “Mr Salamati has attended cultural events associated with his country of birth and Palestinian rights events. He has been active in several peace and unity events in Scotland.”
Scotland has long been of interest to the Ayatollah. Facebook has removed Tehran’s fake SNP accounts a number of times. And last year, Iranian dissidents were reportedly “terrorised” by Tehran’s agents after taking part in anti-regime protests in Glasgow.
They said that they had been filmed covertly, threatened with a gun and offered money to inform on friends. Thugs told members of the 6,000-strong exile community in Scotland that their families in Iran would be killed if they did not stop opposing the theocracy, the Times reported.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers are absolutely committed to a welcoming and inclusive country where everyone can celebrate their identity, regardless of background, culture, religion or sexual orientation.”
The spokesperson added: “Hate, prejudice or discrimination of any kind have no place in modern Scotland.”
Additional reporting by Hamid Bahrami
ANALYSIS: Why does Iran care about Scotland?
By David Patrikarakos
Stories about Russian disinformation are everywhere. The Kremlin is reported to be behind everything from the election of Donald Trump to the social media apps Gab and Parler. But there is another state that been quietly increasing its disinformation capabilities over recent years: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
Tehran initially enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with information technology. When the internet, and especially social media, first appeared, the regime knew that it was dealing with a powerful tool for social organisation and possible dissent. The Russians had spent much of the Cold War conducting information warfare (so-called “active measures”) against the West, and immediately understood that the digital revolution offered them a new and improved means of continuing to do this.
Iran’s instinct was to censor and ban. I still remember the endless frustrating afternoons in Tehran internet cafes trying to bypass the national block on Facebook.
Eventually, though, the regime understood that the internet could not be shut out, either completely or forever: it had to be harnessed. The decision was made and the regime has never looked back. It now employs a full suite of disinformation tools. Trolls and “sock puppets” whirr away online alongside proxy media outlets, websites and social media accounts that masquerade as “independent” but are all geared toward promoting the Islamic Republic and undermining its enemies.
Last year, US prosecutors seized a network of 92 web domains posing as independent media sites targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, Middle East and South East Asia. It was part of campaign by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread political disinformation in a host of countries. The network was said to be part of an interference campaign targeting the United States ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Like the very best disinformation actors, Iran seeks so-called “wedge issues” – points where it can divide and undermine target populations. Elections and referendums are naturally fertile ground for this. People are divided and emotions run high. It’s why Russia targeted both the US election and the Brexit vote of 2016.
Make no mistake: May’s election in Scotland will be avidly followed not just in London and Edinburgh, but also in Moscow and Tehran.