In early July, Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was arrested and charged with acting as a foreign agent and conspiracy to commit murder following his alleged involvement in a failed bomb plot targeting a gathering of Iranian opposition groups in Paris.
This thwarted terror attack, the latest in a long Iranian pattern of murdering its detractors, is symptomatic of the regime’s expansive global agenda and highlights Iran’s singular status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
A successful response to this latest example of Iranian aggression must go beyond this incident, as Iran’s effort to export its anti-Western, anti-U.S. Khomeinist ideology of terror is truly a global undertaking. A new report from United Against Nuclear Iran offers a holistic exposition of the methodology Iran employs to spread its brand of Shi’a Islamic fundamentalism around the globe through soft power means, with a particular focus on Europe, Latin America, and Africa.
Tehran’s ideological expansion follows a similar pattern in each region.
The process begins with Iranian embassies, which serve as the hub for building influence in host countries. The proliferation of Iranian embassies around the world since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has enabled Iran to boost its trade and economic ties while also serving to enhance its ideological penetration. Once an embassy or consulate is established, Iran subsequently establishes mosques, cultural centers, educational institutions, charities, and media organs in the surrounding communities to proselytize, propagandize, and establish links to the targeted communities.
The Iranian diplomatic missions provide funding and propaganda materials and coordinate cultural and educational programming at the web of these regime-run institutions. Through its educational and cultural outreach, Iran has established pockets of influence in a diverse array of societies, creating loyal adherents to the regime’s religious and foreign policy worldview.
Iran’s embassies typically have more staff than necessary, indicating an effort to conceal large numbers of intelligence agents and IRGC operatives. Iran embeds its regime agents in the seemingly benign networks of pro-Iran organizations, and they then seek out and establish ties to those potential recruits sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution. In this manner, Iran cultivates support bases for its regime, as well as Hezbollah and its fundraising and terrorist enterprises.
Many of the most promising ideological recruits are selected for further training at the hands of Iran’s revolutionary regime. Al-Mustafa International University is one of the primary vehicles, tasked with training the next generation of Iran’s foreign Shi ’a clerics, religious scholars, and missionaries. It is also one of Iran’s main arms for the dissemination of Khomeinist ideology abroad. Al-Mustafa currently has 40,000 enrollees from over 100 countries in its 50-plus international campuses.
Iran essentially buys the loyalty of Al-Mustafa’s students to the Islamic Republic and the supreme leader, offering free tuition and enough money for students and their families to travel to Qom for further indoctrination. Al-Mustafa graduates serve Iran’s interests by acting as agents for the regime’s ideology and establishing pro-Iranian religious and cultural institutions in their home countries.
One such Al-Mustafa graduate is Abbas DiPalma, an Italian convert to Shi’ism. After completing his studies at Al-Mustafa, DiPalma founded and now serves as director of Rome’s Imam Mahdi Center, one of Italy’s primary Khomeinist institutions. DiPalma is an outspoken proponent of the Iran-led “resistance axis” and has staged events in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.
A further survey of European countries reveals an active pro-Iranian regime NGO network with links to Tehran which advances Khomeinist ideology and Iranian foreign policy imperatives and provides cover for Hezbollah’s ongoing activities on the continent.
In the United Kingdom, for example, a web of interconnected Tehran-linked organizations carry out activities oriented toward promoting Iran’s Islamic Revolution, bolstering Hezbollah, delegitimizing Israel, and campaigning against Iran sanctions.
Latin America offers a prime example of Iran’s pattern of ideological penetration. Iran has prioritized Latin America, for export of the revolution since the early 1980s when it dispatched Mohsen Rabbani, a young cleric, to the region in order to construct networks of pro-Iranian organizations. Rabbani was posted in Latin America for 14 years until he ultimately had to flee back to Iran due to his role as the mastermind of the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Since his return to Iran, Rabbani has recruited, radicalized and cultivated numerous disciples who serve as “informal ambassadors” for Iranian ideology. The most committed recruits are selected to travel to Qom for specialized training at Al-Mustafa University, where Rabbani now serves as a distinguished professor.
In Africa, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky founded and served as the spiritual leader for the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Iran’s key proxy movement in the country. The IMN’s strength in Nigeria has made the country the main center of Al-Mustafa International University in Africa. Iran sends dozens of Al-Mustafa’s 1,000-plus Nigerian students each year to Qom for intensive ideological training, and many graduates go on to undertake missionary activities elsewhere in Africa.
Iran’s soft power strategy has succeeded in indoctrinating and radicalizing cadres of converts around the world into its anti-American, Islamist theology.
The pro-Iran NGO network operates informally, and it is most active in places with loose anti-money laundering/counter financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) controls. The U.S. should therefore work to strengthen AML/CT standards and enforcement practices in regions where the network thrives in order to disrupt the revenue flows created by Iran’s lucrative criminal enterprises. The U.S. should also push the EU to finally remedy its failure to fully designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization and work with Latin American and African nations to introduce basic legislation and prosecutorial frameworks criminalizing membership in and support for Hezbollah.
Confronting the Iranian threat will require sustained multilateral law enforcement, intelligence, and policy coordination. An Iran strategy that fails to disrupt the web of Iranian-backed religious, charitable, educational, and media institutions which have given Iran an ideological foothold in Latin America, Africa, and Europe will never contain Iran’s malign expansionism.
[Photo: Simay Azadi TV / YouTube ]