“We went to Bosnia to stay there”, Ameer Farshad Ibraheemy, a defected officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said to BBC Persia in June 2019, when he was talking about Iran’s strategy for the war in Balkan during the 1990s. Iranians thought that the war in Balkan would continue for long and that they would be able to affiliate a pro-Iran sectarian group there like the one in Lebanon. But winds went in the opposite direction of their tendencies. They didn’t expect the Dayton Agreement, signed in December 14, 1995.
This agreement put an end to the war in Balkan and annihilated Iran’s dreams, forcefully expelled them from the country. Though, Iran didn’t leave Bosnia and Herzegovina altogether. The Al Quds Corps of IRGC left the country, but Iran maintained its intelligence and political influence on state institutions of Bosnia as it was declared by a former Head of Intelligence of Bosnia. Iran expanded its influence in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Albania through establishing cultural and religious centers in the context of the so-called soft strategy.
The war in Balkan and beginning of Iran’s influence
Iranians put their feet on the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina just six months after the war had started. Iran sent thousands of its IRGC fighters as staff members of Iran’s Red Crescent. This was confessed by brigadier Saeed Kasemy, a field commander in Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. On June 2, 1994, the Washington Times wrote that 400 fighters of IRGC entered Bosnia in May of 1994, according to intelligence sources.
At that time, some intelligence sources reported that 3,000-4,000 fighters of IRGC were based in Bosnia in addition to 400 fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Most of the Hezbollah fighters came from the Bekah area of Lebanon. They were led by Ali Ahmad Fayadh, who was killed in Khanser, Aleppo, Syria in 2016. Iran established its camps in Zenica and Visoko , during Sarajevo was besieged.
Iran played a key role in the war in Balkan through providing about 200 million USD to Bosnian Islamic groups, which were affiliated with the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Army. A report on “An investigation into the Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia”, was released by the US Senate Intelligence Committee on October 9, 1998, stating that Iran was the main supporter of Bosnian militias and the army. According to the report, 30% of the arms of the Bosnian army and militias was provided by Iran.
Meanwhile, the US turned a blind eye on the Iranian support in Bosnia and Herzegovina. US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peter Galbert said: “Our policy was based on not preventing Iran from arming Bosnians.”. However, the expansion of Iran’s influence in Bosnia was no longer limited to sending arms or armed groups; it went further to training Bosnian intelligence officers, and its influence on security systems was eminently reinforced. As for political influence, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was one of the fans of Khomeni’s revolution and he even participated in the celebration of Iran’s Islamic Revolution during the anniversary back in 1982. Therefore, he was arrested by Serbian authorities as soon as he came back from Tehran. Some reports said that he received financial support from Iran.
The Dayton Agreement and Iran’s exodus from Bosnia and Herzegovina
In 1995, the Dayton Agreement put an end to Iran’s presence in Bosnia, as the agreement explicitly stressed on the evacuation of all foreign military in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Americans and Europe were fully aware of the Iranian threat which started to expand by creating a new geo-political situation, transfering extremist organizations like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda into the heart of Europe. In a TV interview, Brigadier Saeed Kasemi, a former IRGC officer, revealed Iran’s collaboration with Al Qaeda in Bosnia and Herzegovina and how Iran trained Al Qaeda fighters, provided them with weapons and financial support. Ameer Fershad Ibraheemi, an IRGC defector who worked with Saeed Kasemi, cleared up that Iranian forces participated in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina just for the sake of establishing a European copy of the Hezbollah in Lebanon. In an interview with the „East Newspaper“ in 2016, Brigadier Muhammed Redah Nakdi, who is currently an IRGC coordinate, said that the US was afraid of converting public resistance forces into another copy of Hezbollah in the heart of Europe.
Muhammed Ibraheem Taherian, Iran’s Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, wrote in his diaries about the mandatory departure of Iranians: “The Dayton Agreement came, followed by repeated defeats of Serbs in many battles with Arab jihadists and Iranian forces. Western countries were afraid of letting Bosnia and Herzegovina change into a base for jihadists and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Europe.
The return of Iran through soft strategy
Iranians realized that exporting their revolution through establishing militias like that of Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen would not be possible in Bosnia for many reasons, including – but not limited to – the absence of joint doctrine i.e. Shiite, a geographical detachment and having many competitors like Americans, Europeans, Turks and Russians in the region. All these countries are far greater than Iran in military and political capabilities. Therefore, Iran worked out a new strategy for their returning influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They called it the “Soft Strategy”.
Iran’s soft strategy largely depended on establishing religious, cultural and media centres in the target country. These centres and establishments are managed by cultural tachments of Iran’s embassies. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran monopolized followers of some Islamic orders. The estimated number of those followers is about 40,000. Iran succeeded in spreading the „Twelve Imams“ among Sufis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bektashya order was founded by Muhamoud Radawy, known as Haj Bektash, whose origin is from Nisabour in the Khurasan Province to the northeast of Iran. The „Twelve Imams“ are the spiritual and political successors to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Twelver branch of Shia Islam, including that of the Alawite and the Alevi sects. According to the theology of Twelvers, the Twelve Imams are exemplary human individuals who not only rule over the community with justice, but also are able to keep and interpret sharia and the esoteric meaning of the Quran. Muhammad and Imams’ words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result, they must be free from error and sin (known as ismah, or infallibility) and must be chosen by divine decree, through the Prophet.
Iranian centres and institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Since its first days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran established cultural and media centres and institutions with the help of their military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the war-borne instable security conditions prevailing in the country. During the war, these centres and institutions were not active. After the war had ended and Iran was expelled as a result of the Dayton Agreement, Iran doubled its efforts to enhance the influence of these religious, cultural and media centres. They constituted a window for Iran to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nowadays, Iranians are very active in Bosnian cities like Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and Zenica through those religious, cultural and media centres and institutions.
The Attaché for Culture of the Iranian Embassy
This department of the Iranian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina started its work back in 1994. Ameer Husein Noury Hussamy, the current head, started his position in September 2018. Iran’s Cultural Attaché has got three centers in the capital city of Sarajevo: the administrative headquarters include a library with about 2,000 books and a department for Islamic video and audio publications. Another center in the city is a permanent library with magazines, brochures and periodicals, all in Bosnian language. The third center is in the third floor of the National Library in Tuzla, exhibiting books and magazine in Persian. One more branch was inaugurated in Mostar. Iran’s Cultural Attaché also publishes a special youth magazine, addressing the younger generation with a focus on Islamic culture and society from an Iranian perspective.
As a result of the collaboration between Iran’s Culture Attaché and the Sarajevo University, an Institute for Persian Language was established at the Faculty of Philosophy. In the same context, the Iranian Culture Attaché established a Iranian Study Center at the Islamic University in Zenica. The Islamic University signed a memorandum of understanding with the Scientific Hawza in Qum, Iran. The Zenica mosque is a center for proselytization of the Shiite doctrine and supported by the Iranian Cultural Attaché. Through this mosque, Iran targets children and teenagers through Quran lectures and entertainment trips.
The attaché in Bosnia reinforced his position after Iran’s Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharazi, had visited Bosnia. This visit was the first step for improving strengthening ties between the two countries. Finally, both countries signed an agreement for cultural, scientific and educational cooperation. Based on this agreement, the attaché in Bosnia and Herzegovina began to:
- Publish researches ad studies
- Hold conferences and symposiums
- Stage cultural and artistic exhibitions
- Conduct training sessions in Persian language with religious lessons inspired by Khomenei’s ideas and the Shiite doctrine opposing the Sunni one
- Publish books and magazines for non-scholars
- Cooperate with media centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina and establish Iranian-contolled media outlets
- Hold religious festivals
- Provide financial, cultural and scientific support to Bosnian scientific, cultural and religious centres
The Bosnian Womens’ Society “Kawthar”
This society was founded 1994 in Zenica by the Bosnian Sedeeka Audic. She converted to Shiite Islam in 1992 and is the head of the centre. Her deputy, Rojec, is a Ph.D. holder specialized in Genetics, working at Sarajevo University. She is responsible for the elite and thinkers club. This society issues a monthly magazine entitled: “Al Zahraz”, presents a TV show named “Al Zahra’a”, it also owns a radio station with the same name. An annual celebration is held on the anniversary of Al Zahra’a birthday. It also organizes and conducts workshops and training sessions on rhymes and melodies related to Shiites and how to conduct Shiite religious rituals.
Avicenna Research Institute
This institution was founded in 1996 in Sarajevo. It is headed by Kazem Zawki Barany, an expert in security and strategic affairs at the Imam Hussein University of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps IRGC. It provides studies and researches on Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina in collaboration with other Iranian and Bosnian study centres in the country.
Avicenna Research Institute issues a monthly magazine named “Time Landmarks”, written in Bosnian. This magazine focusses on Islamic culture, history and society related to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran. Its focus is on philosophy and thought in an Islamic context, related to the Shiite doctrine. So far, this institution has published 59 books including books written by Khomenei , Mutaheri, the Iranian historian Abdul Hussein Zareen Qub and Irani’s former Foreign Minister Ali Aqbar Welayati. The institute owns a huge library with more than 5,000 books in both Iranian and Bosnian languages, covering Persian literature, history, philosophy, politics, international relations and Islamic fiction.
Avicenna Research Institute collaborates with many Bosnian study and research centres through conferences, debates and symposiums on thought and culture. It stages exhibitions and festivals on Iranian religious, political and cultural celebrities. Throughout its history, Avicenna Research Institute has organized about 69 conferences and symposiums related to different fields of knowledge, thought and culture.
This school was founded in 1999 by Muhammed Ja’far Zra’an, a member of the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly. The Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly is an international non-governmental organization that was established by a group of Shiite elites under the supervision of the great Islamic authority of the Shiites in 1990 to identify, organize, educate and support the followers of Ahl al-Bayt. One of the most important goals of the Iranian government after the success of the Islamic Revolution was to foster unity among Muslims across the globe. In order to reach that goal, the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly was established in 1990. Its statute ordained Tehran as the main center of it. According to Abdul Karim Soroush, the establishment of the Assembly was a counter-offensive of traditionalist Shiite Clerics inside the powerful elite against Tehran`s Ecumenical Society because they suspected it was developing tendencies to encroach upon the Sunnis.
The school was established in the suburbs of Sarajevo on 6 hectares. The Gellistan school compound includes accommodation for male and female students, taught in Bosnian, and Persian language is included together with Islamic subjects derived from Shiite doctrine.
Mullah Sadre Institute
This institute was established by Akbar Eidi, Khamenei’s envoy to Bosnia in 2003. Currently, it is led by Kabad Soleimani, who is a clergyman. The Mullah Sadre Institute is interested in Islamic philosophy and historical studies related to Islamic civilization and doctrines. It targets university students and works hard to make connections with researchers and the cultured elite and university professors in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ever since its establishment, the Mullah Sadre Institute has issued 106 books in Bosnian language. Some of these books have been translated from Persian language. It has got a big compound in the capital and it stages and organizes debates and conferences on politics, culture, Islamic history and Iranian history and culture.
Iranian Study Centre
This centre was established in 2013 by the Islamic Culture and Relations Association, one of Iran’s main arm for soft influence outside Iran. This centre is joined by many Bosnian experts and researchers specialized in Iranian affairs. The centre’s main concern is to build up ties with political and intellectual elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The aim is to win their favour and their support to Iran’s propensities in Europe and particularly in Balkan.
Bosnian-Iranian Friendship Association
This association was founded in 2010. Most of its members are military commanders, politicians, religious figures and parliament members from both Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This association is active in reinforcing friendship between the two countries. Through this association, Iran fervently provides financial, political and media support to Bosnian politicians who are affiliated with Iran to make them win presidential, parliamentary and local councils elections.
Media Cooperation between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran
The two countries are deeply involved in media cooperation. Therefore, Iran inaugurated Sehr Balkan TV Channel, broadcasting in Bosnian. Iranian and Bosnian broadcasting companies signed a memorandum of understanding that entailed the allowance of Iranian films and documentaries, translated into Bosnian language to be shown on the official Bosnian TV channel BHRT. Some other Iranian TV programs have been shown on other Bosnian local TV channels like Al Balkan, TVSA, RTV, MTV and VOGOSCA TV.
Iran’s terrorism at the gates of Europe
Bosnia and Herzegovina constitute the gate of Europe for Iran. Iranians have been very clear in their intentions and they explicitly stated their propensities. In a meeting with the Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegovic, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, former head of the Expediency Discernment Council of the Iranian Regime, said that Iran considers Bosnia and Herzegovina as a gate for Iran to enter Europe. Iran has always been keen on strengthening ties with Bosnian influential politicians to reinforce their status in their country. Some intelligence reports say that networks working for the Islamic Republican Guard Corps IRGC have been active in drug trafficking to European countries, together with money forgery and money laundering.
The US National Security Agency warned of the increasing activities of Iranian intelligence in Bosnia and Herezigova. The report, issued a list of 650 Iranian intelligence agents working in Bosnia and Herezigova. Jawad Hassan Boor, former Deputy Minister of the Iranian Intelligence and current chair of IRGC’s Intelligence in Balkan and Southeast Europe were the two top names in the list. Under his title as an envoy of the Bosnian-Iranian Friendship Association, Hassan Bour was active in penetrating Bosnian security officers and managed to mobilize some of them to work for Iran. He also worked hard to establish a lobby of Bosnian politicians, supporting Iranian interests in the Balkan countries.
The Iranian domination has not been limited to the above-mentioned activities, rather it expanded its influence to penetrate Salafists’ organizations which gained momentum. This was all done through the Al Quds Corps and intelligence agents, especially after the Islamic State (Daesh) flourished in the country. Those Iranian interventions caused a diplomatic crisis between Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 2013. The Bosnian Ministry of Intelligence and Security expelled two Iranian diplomats, Ahmad Hamza Dullab and Sehrab Junaidi. It was said that they were two Iranian Intelligence officers. They were stopped at a Bosnian security checkpoint while driving a car loaded with money and weapons. They were consequently arrested, and investigations proved that they were delivering these money and weapons to Islamic extremists in Gornje districts.
Iran’s influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes in the context of its strategy that aims at creating challenges to the West and the US so as to make huge gains in the conflicts for domination in the Middle East. Iranians were fully aware of the fact that their domination couldn’t compete Western, Russian and Turkish influence, but they kept betting on process of time which is a game Tehran is known to be very good at.
However, Iran has faced insurmountable obstacles to reinforcing its influence in Balkan. These obstacles are due to poor economic and commercial relations with the Balkan area, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina. Commercial interactions between Iran and Bosnia and Herzegovina didn’t exceed 27 million USD between 2007 and 2016, which is considered to be a small number.
The other obstacle lies in the Iranian relations with Serbia, as Iran has been always keen on not disturbing its relations with Russia and Serbia. Serbia considers that the Iranian influence among muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina will destabilize the ethnic and religious balance in such a multi-ethnical region, and it could also undermine the status of the Bosnian Serbs. To mitigate Serbia’s concerns, Iran did its best to strengthen its ties with Serbia. These efforts finally succeeded in the obliteration of visas for citizens of both countries, but the agreement was later cancelled due to immigration influxes of Iranians who took the opportunity and used Serbia as a bridge for crossing to other European countries.
Another challenge has faced Iran’s influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as US and EU countries made efforts to contain Bosnia and Herzegovina by offering a EU and NATO membership. Obliteration of Iran’s influence was one of the most important conditions imposed by the United States and European Union on Bosnia and Herzegovina for joining NATO and EU.
For further reading, some links are proposed:
Who was the Lebanese commander in Bosnia
Investigation into Iranian Arms Shipments to Bosnia
Iranian Intelligence in Bosnia
Secret history of the presence of the Quds Forces in the Bosnian war
Incitement for fighting in Bosnia
Shiite and Alawite in Balkan
Activities of Iranian cultural centres in Balkan
Iranian Islamic cultural consultation in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mullah Sadre Institution
Broadcasting Iranian works on Sahar Balkan TV Channel
Hashemi Rafsanjani: Iran-Bosnia-Herzegovina Cooperation capacity is high
IRANSKO PROLJEĆE U BIH: Izvještaj Američke sigurnosne agencije o pojačanim aktivnostima iranskih obavještajnih službi u našoj zemlji
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