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In the Rearview Mirror: The Case of Iranian Influence in Bosnia

As an important actor in the wider Islamic world, Iran wields some soft power clout in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Rooted in ties formed after the Islamic Revolution and amid the Bosnian civil war, Iranian influence in the Balkan country touches aspects of religion, charity, and education through institutions that include the Iranian Cultural Center, the Ibn-Sina Research Institute, the Mulla Sadra Foundation, and the Persian-Bosnian College.

Today, Tehran’s leverage within BiH has dipped significantly compared to the late 20th century. Iran lacks a significant trade relationship or military ties with the country. Thus, its inability to complete with the West for hard power influence in Sarajevo has greatly limited Iranian clout in BiH throughout the 21st century. Meanwhile, historical, religious, economic, and geopolitical developments have caused Iran to lose standing to other Muslim powers, such as Turkey, in the competition for patronage.

Understanding Iran’s links to BiH requires going back at least to the Cold War. The Shah and Josip Broz Tito, who ruled during almost the exact same years—1953-79 and 1953-80, respectively—exchanged high-profile visits. Their regimes also developed military ties.

Although the 1979 revolution rendered Iran a global pariah throughout the 1980s, the communist leadership of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) maintained friendly ties with Tehran despite the Islamic Republic’s fundamentalist and revolutionary outlook. For example, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visited the SFRY in 1989. While in Belgrade, he said that his predecessor’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie was irrevocable because “an arrow has been shot toward its target and it is now traveling towards its aim.” He also expressed disappointment with the lack of Sunni support for that internationally-deplored fatwa.

Intervention in the Bosnian War

Yet, the most important chapter in Bosnian-Iranian relations did not begin until Yugoslavia’s implosion in the early-mid 1990s. During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian government and Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide against Bosniaks in pursuit of a “Greater Serbia.” Those massacres enraged Iranians, who, while glued to their televisions, received daily news about their co-religionists being butchered.

Iran’s government intervened to stop the carnage. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati coordinated assistance to the Bosniaks and justified the intercession as keeping with the Islamic Republic’s concept of defending the mostazafan (oppressed) across the world, from Palestine to South Africa. At the same time as European governments complied with a UN arms embargo on BiH, Iran filled a vacuum by sending military trainers, intelligence officers, food, money, and humanitarian assistance to Bosniaks struggling against their heavily armed enemies. Disguised as aid workers in Iranian Red Crescent uniforms, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces arrived in BiH. However covert, this contribution was effective. According to Harun Karčić, a Bosnian political analyst, “Iranian weaponry was of crucial importance to the beleaguered Bosnian administration, and the IRGC instructors played a crucial role in training rag-tag Bosnian fighters in the early stages of the conflict.” On September 10, 1992, Western officials stated that their Croatian counterparts had intercepted an Iranian Boeing 747 which flew to Zagreb with Iranian weapons and personnel, marking the first documented case of Tehran’s material support for Bosniaks. The plane’s stated mission was to provide BiH with relief supplies, yet the Croatian authorities “discovered 4,000 guns, more than a million rounds of ammunition and 20 to 40 Iranians huddled in the back.”

The Bosniaks had no choice but to turn to fellow Muslim-majority countries for assistance. Iran—along with Brunei, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—all supported the Bosnian cause against Serbia and the Bosnian Serb forces. For Tehran, the Bosnian conflict served as an opportunity to demonstrate that it could influence events in Europe despite the West branding Iran a “rogue state.” Iran’s support for BiH also allowed the Islamic Republic to show Muslims worldwide that it could lead in pan-Islamic struggles.

The Iranian support earned Tehran much goodwill among Bosniaks—86 percent of whom viewed Iran favorably by 1995. “In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Muslim government is a client of the Iranians,” explained Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in Sarajevo during the war. “If it’s a choice between the CIA and the Iranians, they’ll take the Iranians any day.” During the conflict, Bill Clinton’s administration controversially agreed to permit Iran to arm the Bosniaks because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Washington “found no way to help Bosnia defend itself, except by relying on the Iranian regime.”

Post-Conflict Cracks Emerge

After the conflict, the Islamic Republic attempted to use Islamic theology and a narrative about a shared victimhood to try to bring Sunni-majority BiH and Shi’a-majority Iran closer together. Iranian institutions sought to overcome the sectarian divide by spreading its ideology based on Islamic unity. Yet, tensions quickly arose between these two countries in the post-war period. Some Bosnian clerics and Bosniaks grew suspicions of these Shi’a institutions and accused them of proselytization efforts aimed at converting Bosniaks to Shi’ism.

After the war, Western governments grew fearful of the presence of Iranian spies and intelligence agents allegedly disguised as diplomats in BiH, and they pressured Sarajevo to eject IRGC advisers. Consequently, friction arose in the Bosnian-Iranian relations. Tehran found BiH ungrateful for the support that it provided Bosniaks amid the war. Then, after the 2012 Burgas bus bombing prompted the EU to place Hezbollah’s military wing on its terrorism blacklist, Western diplomats called on Sarajevo to further distance itself from Iran.

At the same time, BiH has become somewhat of a peripheral issue for Iranian foreign policy. Throughout this century, other issues such as the Islamic Republic’s nuclear deal with world powers and its influence in Iraq and Syria have dominated the agenda in Tehran. Meanwhile, Bosniaks have become more Western-oriented. Today, 80 percent of Bosniaks hold favorable views of the United States. Very few of them study at universities in Iran, and many pursue their education in Western Europe. Iranian organizations have also had a difficult time competing with better-resourced Western institutions for influence in BiH.

As such, Iran’s role in BiH has declined since 1995. Reuf Bajrović, BiH’s former Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mining, told the Gulf International Forum that “Iran’s position has weakened so much that it is very difficult to identify pro-Iran actors in the public arena.”

Tehran’s heyday as a significant actor in the Balkan country was an outcome of Western indifference to the Bosnian genocide. The fragile but enduring peace that followed the signing of the Dayton accords has undermined Iran’s attraction to Bosniaks and diminished its ability to advance its Islamic agenda in BiH. “The nature and complexity of [BiH], and the fact that key international actors involved there are the U.S., NATO, and EU, create many limitations on Iran’s ability to invest a lot in Bosnia,” Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, told the Gulf International Forum.

The elephant in the room is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which only makes the Bosniaks more fearful of Russia’s agenda in the Western Balkans and more closely aligned with NATO. Although Tehran’s partnership with Moscow has strengthened since Russia invaded Ukraine, Iranian and Russian interests conflict in BiH. Moscow encourages the Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik’s revanchist agenda, whereas Tehran, as Divsallar explained, supports BiH solidarity and unity. Therefore, BiH’s ongoing political crisis represents an unusual case where Iran’s position aligns more closely with that of the West than Russia’s.

Considering how much Iran needs Russia as a partner, it is doubtful that Tehran would pursue policies that could harm Iranian-Russian relations, especially in a Balkan country of peripheral concern to Iran’s foreign policy interests. Thus, it is safe to conclude that international circumstances will continue to limit Iran’s maneuverability vis-à-vis—and thus its influence in— BiH. Although today Iran maintains a degree of soft power influence in BiH, its heyday in this European country is now behind it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.

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