By Aleksandar Samardjiev
Track Persia- October 25, 2016
Iran maintains good economic ties with the Balkans states, though not as strong as used to be before the latter split from the Soviet Union. Possibly one of the factors that has contribute to the uninterrupted ties between Iran and these states is fact that they are all members in Non-Aligned Movement.
Ties between Iran and the countries of former Yugoslavia got even better than any time, when Iran’s former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in office (2005-2013). In 2011, trade between Serbia and Iran was worth 58.4 million USD. Serbia’s exports to Iran reached the value of 48.7 million USD, while its imports from Iran was around 9.7 million USD. In the same year, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s exports to Iran was worth 26.1 million USD.
Iran’s cultural centres
Beside economic ties, Iran has maintained what are called ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ centres in the Balkans; especially in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro since 1990s. In addition to these centres, Iran has targeted centres for religion studies and NGOs in the Balkans like Centre for Religious Studies (KOM) and Iran and Serbia Friendship Association.
The ostensible goal of these centres is to promote the Iranian culture, however they have been reported to have been used by the Iranian government to increase Iran’s influence through promoting Iran’s policies and the regime’s version of the Shi’ite Islam based on the revolutionary concept of wilayat al-faqih, or the rule of a religious jurist.
These centres organise regular exhibitions, film festivals and other ‘cultural’ events around the year. Publications of these cultural centres target readers who are interested to know more about Iran. NUR magazine which has been published by the Iranian cultural centre in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, since 1991 is also distributed in Macedonia and Montenegro. According to the magazine’s website, it covers the Iranian culture, in addition to philosophy and spirituality in the East.
Iran has also targeted educational institutions in the Balkans to increase its influence. Teaching Farsi is one of the means Iran has used to achieve its goals in these countries.The language, for example, has been taught as part of the curricula at the Department of Oriental Studies/Faculty of Philology in Belgrade since 1999. Students who gain high grades in Farsi are usually offered scholarships in Iran.
Additionally, the Iranian government is keen to use media to achieve its goal in the Balkans. The main goal of the Iranian-funded TV and Radio Sahar, both operate in Farsi, in Bosnia is to defend the interests of the ‘oppressed Muslims’ in the Balkans, according to these media outlets.
Ties between Iran and Kosovo, however, have not been warm since latter’s split from Serbia in 2008 because the former does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Observers attribute Iran’s negative position on Kosovo’s independence to a sectarian reason, given the majority population of Kosovo is Sunni Muslim (Iran is predominately Shiite country).
The relations between the two countries have tensed after the authorities in Kosovo accused an Iranian citizen of funding terrorist acts and money laundering through the NGO ‘Quran Foundation of Kosova’.
Hasan Azari Bejani was charged with laundering a million US dollars between 2014 and 2015. The group which Mr Bejani was working for claimed that the money had been aimed at funding a museum for promoting Iranian culture and launching a department for Iranian studies at the University of Pristina.