Iranian influence in Kosovo. Disappearing actor or just an observer?

Iran is one of the main international actors which had never been rooted in Western Balkans (WB) in history, in contrary with Turkey, Russia etc. Its significant emergence can be traced back in the late 1980s and beginning of 1990s given various reasons (Trad 2017). However, what’s clear is that Iran has gained certain influence in Balkans, primarily among the Muslim population which might go hand in hand with ‘’the issue of inspiring and financing the spread of religious extremism’’ (Heler 2019)1. Nevertheless, other indicators say that financial or political influence is negligible (ibid.). Notwithstanding, to understand the full nature of Iranian influence and its reasons for approaching Balkans, including Kosovo, it is important to start from the very beginning.

 One of the reasons had been the break-up of the former Yugoslavia which was followed by the bloody conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia was for Iran one of the turning points of its foreign politics, whereas one of the fighting parties were Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). In term of pro-Muslim policy, which intensified when Milosevic restored the diplomatic relations in Israel in 1992 (Progonati 2017: 206) Iran projected its influence towards Bosniaks and supported them not only with military material but also with people coming from so-called Revolution guards which have functioned as parallel army2. Moreover, it was estimated that Iranians formed one of the biggest groups of foreign combatants. Furthermore, this kind of Iranian support was interpreted as humanitarian aid and it is also fair to notice that this aid was also directed towards catholic Christian Croats. Not surprisingly, Iranian activities were also generously accompanied by activities of their security intelligence officers who should have kept eyes opened on Bosniaks politicians, such as Alija Izetbegović, and of the post-conflict development3 as such (Kraus 2018: 225).

After the Dayton Peace agreement which finished conflict in Bosnia, many foreign fighters remained, including Iranian ones, who helped to partially spread religious influence in the region (Bassuener: 19) and increase the geopolitical leverage in the WB. This approach was then considerably used by Iran during the other conflict in WB, in Kosovo. As in Bosnia in previous years, Iran ‘’championed the Albanian Kosovars’’ (Freedman O. 2006: 11)4, thus, people of Muslim origin. Furthermore, during the Kosovo crisis, Iran was as chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (today Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) where Iran presented its support towards the Muslim population and called on Serbia to refrain from killing.5 Moreover, based on certain shred of evidence it can be declared that Iran ‘’had provided the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) with aid’’ (Menashri 2001: 235; Cigar and Clawson 1999). However, after the NATO bombing, Iran reconsidered its options and focused on diplomatic initiatives with Russia even though that their relations had been complicated due to Russia´s support of Milosevic regime, and simultaneously Iran desired ‘’to pursue an independent foreign policy that is „neither East nor West.’’(Samii, William A. 1999) Afterwards, Iran started intensively cooperating with Russia on Kosovo crisis and strongly criticised NATO6 steps in the conflict and what’s more, Iran marked NATO bombings as illegal (Samii, Bill 1999). One of the greatest issues had been that Iran, accompanied with Russia, had decisively different look how to tackle the conflict and primarily wanted to negotiate on the United Nations ground which did not precisely go hand in hand with the Western perception (Menashri 2001: 236). Last but not least, Iran clearly showed its paradoxical relations towards Russia when one the one side Iran criticised the Serbian atrocities, and on the other side stood side by side with Russia towards NATO which helped to create ‘’perception of Iran as siding with Pan-Slavic Russia against Muslims’’ (Meshabi 2001: 154) as well as trying to preserve a neutral stance.

Nevertheless, the Western attitude, strongly influenced by the United States, prevailed and Iran lost its part. Following this happening, Iran accused America from creation of American World order (O’Rourke 1999) and also labelled Kosovo´s independence as an American project (Progonati 2017: 206). Afterwards, Iran had to face the certain amount of critique from other OIC countries for being ambiguous in advocating Kosovo independence and just stuck to humanitarian aid (Samii, William A. 1999). Other authors argue that Iran missed its diplomatic opportunity in solving the Kosovar crisis when conceived hatred for West as such (Cigar and Clawson 1999), which played a crucial role during the conflict and in the post-conflict reconstruction (Earnest and Dickie 2012), instead of cooperation. Since the Kosovar conflict, the Iran influence in the Kosovar territory has been diminishing. Even though Kosovo is a predominantly Muslim country7, the American influence accompanied by the European Union undoubtedly prevailed.8 Not in vain is said that Kosovo is ‘’perhaps the most pro-American country in the world’’ (Sullivan 2019).

Without any doubts, Iran intrigued neutral stance after the Kosovar conflict. Another underlying moment was Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 17th February 2008. As Misha Glenny says: ‘’Kosovo’s announcement divided world opinion’’ (Glenny 2012: 684). Moreover, some important members of OIC have not recognized its independence, such as new aspiring power Indonesia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia 2018). Nevertheless, Iran once again intrigued neutral stance towards the declaration and clearly uncovered that prioritized national state interest accompanied with ‘’the decisive objection by its strategic ally, Russia,’’9 (Zimmt 2008) than support its revolutionary vision considering, for example, Muslim solidarity etc. (ibid.)

However, in 2013 it seemed that Iran might consider Kosovo’s independence when ‘’ the office of Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo, Behgjet Pacolli had announced that Iran is ready to recognize the state of Kosovo’’ (Tota 2013). Nevertheless, after the held meeting in Teheran between Kosovo and Iranian delegation, Iran eventually did not change its position (ibid.). Moreover, there have also been certain attempts from Albanian side to support Kosovo’s recognition in Teheran, when Albanian former minster of Foreign affairs Ditmir Bushati raised these questions on held meeting with the Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (OCNAL 2016). Yet nothing has changed.

Even though that Iranian presence is rather small, in 2015 Kosovo’s police raided several NGOs, some authors such as Jordan Steckler (2018: 73) are mentioning five of them, working in Kosovo and found out that some of them had close links to Iran and ‘’whose activities are tied to Iran, as a part of a strategy to counter religious extremism.’’ (Hajdar 2015). One of these NGOs was so-called Koran Foundation launched in 2002 which sought to promote Iranian culture and Shia Islam.10 Especially this NGO was being investigated ‘’by Kosovo authorities for terror financing, money laundering, and corrupt property deals’’ (Schwartz 2015). Beside several NGOs, with close links to Teheran, there also can be for instance found Iranian radio Voice of Teheran which is broadcasting in Albanian language (ibid.). Last but not least, based on the investigation from 2015, Kosovar authorities arrested high-profile Iranian cleric Hasan Azari Bejandi who was accused of money laundering and terrorism financing. Additionally, his activities should have been accompanied by Khomeinist teachings Al-Mustafa International University (Steckler 2018: 73). Lastly, there are also certain pieces of evidences that Iran is closely linked to Hezbollah11 and according to Bulgarian security intelligence community, this Iranian proxy might have its assets in Kosovo (Trad and Avramov 2018). Nevertheless, the reasons for that are yet unknown.

To sum up, it seems that Iranian actions in Kosovo had had at rough guess underground character. In addition to this, according to the latest information ‘’the Iran NGO network in Kosovo is no longer operational.’’ (Steckler 2018: 74).  However, that does not mean that Iranian activities disappeared. Furthermore, Kosovo-Iranian relations have remained tense after the police raids in 2016 (Samardijev 2016). One might think that Iran has been waiting for a new chance how to approach Kosovo and spread its geopolitical influence in this area. As written in the headline and above in the text, it can be suggested that Iran plays the role of ‘’stealth observer’’ given various reasons. One of them is that Iran has close economic cooperation with Serbia and Bosnia (ibid.). Another one is that the Balkan region is strategic to Teheran which has been supported by its cultural and investments activities. And what’s more, The Denmark-based Dergipark research centre argues that ‘’corruption and political weakness in the region, which is an attractive model for Iran’s ambitious agenda and its military arms, i.e. Hezbollah.’’ (Mohem 2018). To recapitulate this analysis, based on the experiences from other world regions, it is clear that Western Balkan is in the scope of Iranian foreign policy and even though it seems in some areas that Iran is loosing its interest, Iran should have never been underestimated and ought to be considered as serious actor.

Written by: Zdeněk Rod

Project Supervisor: Halina Chraščová

 

Notes

1 Similarities can be also found in the case Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States as such (Zakem
and Rosenau eds: 21)
2 ‘’The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was founded as an ideological custodian of Iran’s
1979 revolution’’ (Council on Foreign Relations 2019).
3 For example, in Sarajevo, Iran has one of the biggest embassies in Europe and it is used to mark as
the Iranian headquarters in Western Balkans (Kraus 2018: 226).
4 The fact that Iran supported Albanians considerably complicated the relations with Russia who
stood for Serbia (Freedman O. 2006: 11).
5 However, mass atrocities happened on both sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Serbia had a greater
deal on that.
6 On the other hand, Iran had been criticized by some OIC member for doing nothing in favour of
Kosovar Muslims. The biggest criticism was expressed by Turkey which sees itself "real protector of
the people of Kosovo" (O’Rourke 1999). Moreover, Kosovo is not a member of OIC (Schwartz 2015).
7 However, the northern part of Kosovo is predominantly inhabited by Serbs. This northern part,
around Mitrovica etc., is well known for its parallel structures which are strongly depended on
Belgrade (Rod and Chráščová 2019).
8 This is not only a problem of Iran but also other Gulf States which lack a considerable amount of
influence, at least in economic terms. In a way of spreading extremism and radicalism, they play a
certain role (Bashota: 84).
9 In term of Serbia, Serbian politicians, for instance, current minister of foreign affairs Ivica Dacic,
have many times thanked Iran that maintained its foreign policy towards Kosovo (B92 2015).
10 The mainstream in Kosovo is Sunni Islam (beinkosovo 2019).
11 Kosovo designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in 2019 (RTKLive 2019).

 

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