Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Iran’s soft power reach in the Balkans, by Ioannis Michaletos

Since the early 90′s and the Yugoslavian civil wars, Iran tried to enter the Balkan region by establishing religious-educational organizations, NGO’s and by forming cells for intelligence gathering.

Due to the pressure either by NATO or the EU, as well as, the efforts by the countries involved, the Iranian influence has rather decreased, but it remains in the form of a “soft power” structure, closely related to the state apparatus of Teheran.

The following article will briefly highlight the most important organizations involved. Special acknowledgement is made by the writer to Dr. Athanassios Drougos, a senior counter-terrorism lecturer in Greek and NATO armed forces colleges, and an Advisor for RIMSE,for the research and analysis on the relevant data.

Bosnia Herzegovina

In BiH, Iran has a number of organizations it collaborates or directly administers, although its influence has decreased considerably than it was 15 years ago.

One of the most important institutions is the “Mulla Sadra”, an NGO funded by Iran that finances the construction of local mosques and religious educational schools. Moreover it hand outs economic assistance to lower-income Muslim citizens of the country and also provides scholarships for students wishing to enter religious education in Iran.


Iranian Embassy in Tirana

Especially active in the promotion of the business interests of state-owned Iranian enterprises and cultivates interpersonal links with important figures in Albania. Moreover it has financed the publishing of pro-Iranian editions. Furthermore it has formed relations with the “Rufai Tarikat” religious order in the country, as well as, with the Alevi religious community. Albania – Iran Friendship Association It was established by the former Iranian Ambassador in Albania, Mr. Alibeman Eghbali Zarch. Its Director is Bedri Bylyku. The Association was able to attract the membership of prominent figures in the scientific community of the Albanian society, such as Eduart Sulstarova, Emil Lafe and Jorgo Bulo. The target group is exclusively high ranking scientists, business people and politicians.

Kuran Foundation

The foundation is guided by the Iranian state university “Xhometul Mustafa”, which is based in the city of Qom.

It sends selected Albanian students for graduate religious education in Iran and it publishes Shiite religious editions. The foundation’s target group is working class Albanians needing of financial assistance.

Saadi College A female’s high school with the intention of establishing also a second male’s college and a university college in the long-term. It also publishes religious books and its Director is Amir Asghari, an Iranian citizen who has obtained the Albanian citizenship. According to some accounts, he is the cousin of the ex-President of Iran, Khatami.

The Saadi Sirazi Cultural Foundation The first Iranian establishment in Albania. The Director is Sarouz Falahatpisheh. The Foundation is being financed by the “Islamic Cultural and Relationship Organization” that is based in Teheran.

Its main purpose is the support of the rest of Iranian-related organizations in Albania, the publication of religious and political pro-Iranian editions and the organization of conferences. Amongst the Iranian personalities that have been invited by the Foundation for lectures in Tirana, were: Mohsen Miri, an MP of the Iranian parliament and cultural adviser of President, Mahmud Khalilzadeh, also an MP and Director of the “Saadi Sirazi’s European and Balkan Operations” and Reaza Karami, the ex-Head of the Foundation. The target groups of the Foundation are middle and upper income and education Albanian citizens.


The Albanian soft power network in the country had in 2006 tried to establish an Iranian studies Chair in the University of Tetovo, as well as, infiltrate the two main Albanian parties, without apparent success. The only notable presence is the organization “Zeri Yne” (Our voice), which is headed by Muhamed Jusufi, a citizen of Albanian origin. The organization publishes religious and political books and distributes leaflets. It has also organized small-scale public gatherings.


Iran has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and it is unlikely it will do so in the short-term. It has established several NGO’s, although its presence is difficult to be expanded due to the heavy competition of the Sunni forces of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the heavy presence of the international military, police and civil forces.

NGO “Koran – Prizreni Cultural Foundation” (Shoqata Kulturore Kurani – Prizren)

It receives guidance from the Iranian university “Xhometul Mustafa”. The Director is Imam Muhamed Bagher Salehi, whose brother is a senior diplomat. The NGO is based in Pristina and it intends of establishing a museum of the Iranian culture, as well as, creating a Chair of Iranian studies in the local university. NGO Ehli Bejtit It is based in the city of Priznen and it publishes religious books. It also provides scholarships for studies in the city of Qom for religious students from Kosovo.

The Iranian “soft power” base as it was synoptically mentioned above is rather insufficient for any potential ambitions by Teheran to spread its influence in the Balkans. One has to note however, that a substantial Iranian infrastructure on a business level exists in Turkey and to a lesser degree in Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Furthermore, due to series of embargoes against Iran, it is more than certain that even the soft power activities of this country, are carefully controlled and not exposed by the Iranian state, therefore it is likely that a number of seemingly not-Iranian related organizations pursue the same agenda, albeit in a covert manner.