Iran’s Al-Mustafa International University, a network of religious seminaries based in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom. (Supplied)

By Florencia Montaruli

November 8, 2021

The Iranian regime’s attempt to cleave a space for itself in Latin America dates back to the 1980s, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution began in Iran. In 1983, the cleric Mohsen Rabbani was dispatched to Argentina to lead the Al-Tawhid Mosque, Buenos Aires. What happened next is a well-known tale: Rabbani ended up becoming one of the masterminds of the 1994 AMIA bomb attack in Buenos Aires, which left 85 people dead and hundreds injured. Less known about is how, after his return to Iran, Rabbani managed to establish the regime’s most organized indoctrination system abroad, with Latin America as its main target: Al-Mustafa University.

Al-Mustafa University was founded in 2007 in Qom on the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with a budget of 74 million dollars per year. In addition to state funding, the university receives direct payments from the coffers of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and earns extra income its vast business and charitable networks. Al-Mustafa trains clergymen around the world to spread “Khomeinism” in their home countries. It also serves as the primary recruitment and training center for foreign converts to Shiite ideology.

Within this influential institution is a department dedicated entirely to Latin America: the Islamic American Cultural Institute, directed by the very same Mohsen Rabbani. Through this institute, Rabbani selects future disciples willing to do anything in the name of the Revolution. It also responsible for producing texts and books in Spanish and Portuguese for distribution throughout the Latin American continent. The institute’s existence was confirmed in 2017 by a senior fellow of US think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi.

How Al-Mustafa University was created

The foundations for Al-Mustafa University were first laid in September 1979, when Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a core proponent of the Islamic Revolution once seen as Khomenei’s likely successor, formed the Council for the Management of Non-Iranian Seminarian Affairs. His main objective was to attract foreigners interested in studying revolutionary Shiite Islam in Iran. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Council established numerous branches abroad, particularly in Africa, and “tried to provide ideological training to foreigners in Iran and, if possible, in their home countries. It also supported foreigners in establishing infrastructures for ideological propaganda and creating networks in their countries of origin”.

In 1993, now-Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took control of the institution and modernised it, establishing a section for international students in Iran and another for ideological training outside the country. In 2007, these two departments were merged, forming what was finally named Al-Mustafa International University.

Revolutionary activities abroad

Exporting the Islamic Revolution from Iran is explicitly stated as Al-Mustafa University’s primary goal. Addressing Al-Mustafa students studying in Iran in 2010, Supreme Leader Khamenei said: “The first lesson that the Islamic Revolution and the auspicious Islamic Republic taught us was that we should think beyond our borders and turn our attention to the vast arena of the Islamic Ummah. Part of that great work is what you are doing. You have gathered here from nearly one hundred countries in order to become familiar with the pure teachings of Islam.”

Al-Mustafa offers a generous package of financial incentives to attract students, which in effect buy their allegiance to the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader. Most do not pay tuition fees and receive a stipend for them and their families to travel to Qom for the duration of their studies. Al-Mustafa’s Farsi website states: “Students on their Iran campuses receive monthly stipends and are provided free housing, home loans, medical care for students and their families, and childcare for children. It offers financial support for families, a school for children, career education and employment for spouses, and summer camps for them. In foreign branches, students also receive a wide range of financial aid”.

According to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting the perceived nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic, Al-Mustafa University reported a record 40,000 international students had enrolled in 2020. About half of them studied in Iran, while the remaining half studied in branches strategically located in Europe and West Africa.

Indoctrination and recruitment of Latin American people through Al-Mustafa

Through the American Islamic Cultural Institute mentioned above, Rabbani advances his set objectives of indoctrination and export of the Islamic Revolution to Latin America. According to Emanuele Ottolenghi, of the approximately 40,000 graduates of Al-Mustafa in recent years, 10 per cent are Latin Americans tutored exclusively by Rabbani himself. Once trained, these graduates are tasked with returning to their countries to “teach the doctrines of the Islamic Revolution”. According to intelligence specialist Douglas Farah, the students remain in Qom for between 30 and 120 days, where they receive teaching in “counterintelligence and theology.”

There are several famous cases of Latin American graduates who not only came back home espousing the principles of the Islamic Revolution, but also advancing Tehran’s foreign policies. One example is the Peruvian indigenous leader Edward Quiroga Vargas. IranWire previously profiled this character and his ties to the recently elected president of Peru, Pedro Castillo. After graduating from Al-Mustafa, Castillo returned to Peru to create the Inkarri Islam cultural center, in which he mixes Aymara indigenous concepts with Shiite theology. His centre already has five branches throughout the country, strategically located in the country’s poorest sectors, where there is less access to education. He also created a local “Party of God” in the likeness of Lebanese Hezbollah. And he is tasked with recruiting more students to send to Qom at the express request of Mohsen Rabbani.

In Brazil, a bizarre situation IranWire also referred to also has links to Al-Mustafa. Several boys in scout groups led by the Lebanese community of Foz de Iguazú and Ciudad del Este have become students of Al-Mustafa University on reaching the minimum age. On returning, some have in turn become tutors in scout groups inthe area.

In December 2020, the US Treasury Department sanctioned the university, accusing it of being “a recruiting platform for intelligence gathering and operations, including recruiting for foreign militias led by the IRGC-QF.” It alleged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force had used Al-Mustafa as a “cover” to recruit Afghans for the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a proxy militia fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In addition, the US authorities said the Quds Force also used the Al-Mustafa campus in Qom as a “recruiting ground” to entice Pakistani students to join the Zainabiyoun Brigade, a militia made up of Pakistani Shiites.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.