Iran’s pursuit of soft power in the Balkans
Mohammad Salami, The Cradle, February 20 2023 — The Balkans presents a crucial junction for Tehran as an access point to Western Europe and an avenue for advancing its regional political and economic interests.<
The Balkan region is strategically important for western countries as a geographic bloc through which they can increase their influence in former Soviet Eastern European states, including Russia.
In the 20th century, the Balkans was was a theater of conflict between powerful European states, and sparked the First World War when Archduke of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914.
Further afield, Iran today views the Balkans as a gateway to the west and its markets. Iranian officials and experts consider the region to be the “eastern world in the west” due to similarities in culture, religion, and discourse.
As an example, the Persian New Year – Nowruz – is celebrated in both Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The Persian language was popular in some areas of the Balkans in ancient times, and over 1,700 Persian words are still used in the Bosnian language today.
Iran began its modern day influence in the Balkans at the onset of the Bosnian war in 1992. Tehran actively intervened to reduce the carnage on both sides, and filled a vacuum by sending military trainers, intelligence officers, food, money, and humanitarian assistance to Bosnians struggling against their heavily armed adversaries.
Iran’s gateway to Europe
Post-war, and in more recent years, the Balkan states have made efforts to integrate into the European economy. Some, such as Bulgaria and Croatia, are already members of the EU, while others, such as Albania, Kosovo, BiH, and Serbia, are seeking to join. In this sense, the Islamic Republic of Iran sees the Balkans as a potential opportunity to increase exports to Europe.
In 2020, Iran exported approximately $16 million worth of goods to Serbia, making it Iran’s 37th largest trading partner. Serbia, in turn, exported $7 million worth of goods to Iran. Despite having plenty of room for growth, the volume of economic exchanges between the two countries has increased by 50 percent in the past year.
This illustrates the commitment of both nations to enhance their economic interactions. According to an announcement by Iran’s Ambassador to Belgrade Rashid Hassanpour, 15 cooperation documents are being prepared for signing during the upcoming visit of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to Tehran. And Serbia’s First Lady Tamara Vucic was in Tehran just last month to attend the International Congress for Women of Influence.
Among the Balkan countries, Serbia has the most robust economic exchanges with Iran. Due to the war in Ukraine and the disruption of Russian oil to Europe, Serbia is looking to import oil and chemical fertilizers from Iran and export its wheat there in return.
In July 2022, over 80 Serbian and Iranian businessmen, representatives from business associations, and government officials gathered in Belgrade for a business forum that marked the potential start of strengthened economic relations between the two countries. As a result of these established ties – and despite being a candidate for EU membership – Serbia has not joined the EU’s sanctions against Iran.
BiH also has trade relations with Iran. During Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s visit on 6 December 2022, he announced a 53 percent growth in trade between the two countries in the past nine months.
During the trip, both sides prioritized cooperation in tourism, metals, wood, mining, and agriculture, and decisions were made to establish direct flights between the two countries.
Lacking an economic strategy
However, Iran’s economic relations with the Balkans face challenges. The Islamic Republic is a revolutionary country where ideology plays a strong role, and its economic interactions are not always based on strategic considerations. Tehran lacks a comprehensive strategy of economic diplomacy to match the economic priorities in each region, based on their specific needs.
An example of this lack of strategy can be seen in the case of Syria. Turkiye views the government of Bashar al-Assad as illegitimate and has occupied northern Syria and conducted four military operations there without the approval of Damascus.
However, Turkiye was able to export $2.11 billion to Syria in 2021, while Iran, which has supported the Syrian government during the 11-year conflict, does not export more than $300 million to Syria – seven times less than Turkiye.
In the case of the Balkans, the hindrance of Iranian exports has been evident in its own delayed implementation of its Air Service Agreement with Serbia, for instance. The Iranian parliament approved the agreement in 2022, four years after its initial drafting, while the Serbian parliament approved it back in 2020.
Foreign pressures are also a significant challenge for Iran’s business dealings. Despite Serbia agreeing to visa-free entry for Iranians in October 2017, this decision was cancelled just a year later, under pressure from the EU.
The scrapping of the visa-free policy makes it difficult for Iranian businessmen to freely enter Serbia, hindering trade between the two countries. Until Iran can address its financial and banking issues, it cannot hope to increase trade with the Balkan countries.
Iran’s financial and banking challenges, including US sanctions on its economy, restrictions on currency entry, sanctions on its Central Bank, and the the disconnection of Iranian banks from the global financial system, make trade with Balkan states a risky business proposition.
Soft power and transnational networks
Religion plays a fundamental and influential role in Balkan societies, where populations view themselves as more religious than in other parts of Europe. In a 2018 survey of people, the most religious countries in the Balkans were determined to be the following:
Macedonia with 88 percent, then Kosovo at 83 percent, Romania at 77 percent, and Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece all with 70-72 percent of their population. After that is BiH at 65 percent, Bulgaria at 52 percent, and Albania, where only 39 percent admitted a prominent role of religion in their lives.
As a foundational ideology, Shia Islam is very important for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, the two elements of “religion” and “ideology” have formed the basis of the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This is evident in the 11th article of the constitution, which emphasizes the importance of religion in Iranian society.
Iran hopes to exert its cultural-religious influence into political influence in the Balkans. Given its limitations, it achieves this objective by using soft power through transnational networks and civil societies in the region. Currently, Iran is pursuing its goals in the following three ways:
First, by exerting its cultural influence through religious and cultural institutions and foundations that cater to Muslim communities, such as heterodox communities including the Bekhtasis and Alevis (Kizilbash).
One of the most influential of these is the Ibn Sina Institute, established in Sarajevo, BiH in 1996. This institution’s goal is to compile and translate Islamic and academic books and has established many connections with the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo.
Through cultural activities, the institution aims to spread the official discourse of the Islamic Republic in the Balkan region and internationally on political developments in West Asia.
Second, Tehran seeks to promote its culture through cultural aid and festivals. Iran has set up different websites in local Balkan languages to disseminate information about Iranian culture and art. Bosnian Radio, for instance, belongs to Iran’s state broadcaster, Balkan Sahar TV, which helps instruction in the Persian language.
Iran also provides financial aid to institutions such as the OAK private language training institute in BiH and holds festivals for Iranian films, such as the Iranian Cinema Week, which is funded by the Iranian Ministry of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Third, by supporting the Shia community, including converts. The Islamic Republic tries to mobilize the influence of these Muslims to establish a network of communication and – with the help of their notable members – entrusts them with the management of Iranian institutions in order to reduce negative perceptions of Iran.
One of these notables is Amar Imamovic, a Bosnian Shia convert who manages the Spiritual Heritage Foundation (Fodacije “Baština dhuhonosti”) of Iran in the city of Mostar. The purpose of this institution is to promote spiritual values, to revive the Bosnian Islamic spiritual heritage, to publish books, and promote the works of Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (1903-1981), a celebrated Iranian Shia theosophist.
Obstacles to projecting soft power
Although Iran has been able to establish some degree of religious and cultural influence in the Balkans, it faces numerous challenges and competitors in maintaining these relationships – in a region marked by ethnic diversity, extremism, and foreign intervention.
For example, some pro-western individuals are skeptical of Iran’s activities, and there are criticisms from influential figures, such as Dr Jamaludin Latić, a professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Islamic Sciences and a prominent Bosnian writer who has criticized Dr. Hafizović’s connections with Iran.
Iran’s activities in the region also face competition from other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkiye, which compete for religious influence in the Balkans. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, has been particularly successful in promoting Wahhabi beliefs through its numerous charitable foundations and has been able to establish a significant presence in the region.
The launch of Saudi religious activities coincided with the war in Bosnia, during which Riyadh sent tens of millions of dollars to the region. In 1992, the Saudi Government created the High Saudi Committee for Aid to BiH, allegedly the largest single Muslim donor to BiH, and provided funds through several Islamic charities.
They include the Muslim World League, the Al Haramain Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organization, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Saudi Arabian Red Crescent Society, the Islamic Waqf Organization, and the Makkah Humanitarian Organization.
These are only a few of the as many as 245 charitable foundations that have financed the spread of conservative and extremist versions of Islam in the region.
This presents a threat to Iran’s Shia-oriented activities as many Wahhabi scholars considering Shias to be infidels. Despite Iran’s efforts over the past three decades, most Balkan countries remain interested in joining NATO and the EU, and they are likely to prioritize their relationships with the west over those with Iran.
Another part of Iran’s problems is caused by political problems and contradictions. Albania hosts the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), which is proscribed as a terrorist group in Iran, and was delisted from the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012. This group was based in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein, and after his overthrow, relocated to Albania with US support. Tirana officially accepted more than 2,000 MEK members into the Manëz area in 2016.
The Iranian government has lodged protests with Albania over the MEK, which has caused conflict and differences between the two nations. In the latest political development, on September 7, 2022, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama severed diplomatic ties with Iran over allegations that Iran was involved in a cyber-attack on Albania’s digital infrastructure. The incident interrupted Iran’s cultural and religious activities in Albania, which had provided the infrastructure of its soft power at great cost and over a long period.
If Iran wants to exert influence in the Balkans, it needs to understand that the path to influence in the region runs through Western Europe these days, and not necessarily via Moscow. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – or Iran nuclear deal – could be a way for Iran to strengthen its cooperation with Europe and, in turn, its relationship with the Balkans. But even this could change depending on the outcome of the current war in Ukraine.