Iran in the Balkans: A History and a Forecast

As the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to loom over the strategic horizon, despite continued claims by the US that sanctions are weakening the mullahs’ regime, there is increased speculation among security analysts about collateral damage from such an action. One scenario in particular that has caused concern involves a counterstrike by Iran or its allies such as Hezbollah against targets outside the Middle East. In this regard, when a suspected Hezbollah suicide bomber killed six Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July, it confirmed that the Balkans were a potential front for terrorism in any future conflict.

A recent flurry of diplomatic activity confirms the extent of Western government concern over the possibility that pro-Iranian Islamist factions in southeastern Europe could cause serious problems for Western interests if Israel or the US attacks Tehran. In August, the American and British ambassadors to Sarajevo reportedly warned Bosnian officials to cut their ties to Iran, and a former international high representative in Bosnia publicly lectured the Bosnians about how their future lay with the EU, not with Tehran. The motive for such actions became clear in September when the Sarajevo newspaper Dnevni Avaz claimed that pro-Iranian factions in the Bosnian government were re-activating para-intelligence cells tied to the Islamist regime of the late Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic. And in October, the news magazine Slobodna Bosna revealed that two hundred Iranian “businessmen” had been granted visas to enter Bosnia in the first six months of 2012 alone, along with an unnamed Iranian diplomat whom Israeli intelligence officials have tracked in Thailand, Georgia, and India—all places in which Israeli citizens have been attacked in the last year.

The threat Iran and its proxies pose to Western interests in the Balkans is multiplied by the growth of Wahhabi movements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the mountainous Sandzak region straddling the border between Montenegro and Serbia. In remote, isolated villages throughout the Western Balkans, Wahhabi groups have developed a network of extra-territorial, sharia-run enclaves that over the past two decades have become safe havens and recruiting grounds for jihadis from around the world. Under the guise of running “youth camps,” Islamist extremists in recent years have systematically transported young people into national parks or local hills and forests where they are given military training by former mujahedin. The camps are intentionally transitory, re-established in different places and under different auspices each year, to make it more difficult for security officials to track them, but despite their ad hoc nature they have been effective in fostering the relationships needed for creating extremist networks.

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Take your pick of the major terrorist attacks against the US and other Western countries over the past fifteen years—9/11, the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, the August 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, the February 2002 murder and decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl—they all have Balkan connections in terms of personnel, training, and other background elements. That the Balkan Islamists involved in these and other attacks remain violent threats is clear from the attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011 by a Sandzak Wahhabi, the murder of five Macedonian citizens by suspected Islamist extremists outside of Skopje in April 2012, and the July 2012 Burgas bombing as well. A Western conflict with Iran would in all likelihood motivate Islamists in the Balkans to even more violence.


Iran’s emergence as a significant destabilizing factor in the Balkan security equation, and the overall rise of Islamist extremist movements in southeastern Europe, is intimately tied to the life and work of Alija Izetbegovic, the late Islamist president of Bosnia. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Izetbegovic and a circle of like-minded devout Islamists formed a group called the Mladi Muslimani (“Young Muslims”), inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In Izetbegovic’s own words, the goal of the Mladi Muslimani was the creation of “one great Muslim state,” or, as a Bosnian historian has described the group’s aims, the creation of an “Islamistan” throughout the Balkans, northern Africa, and the Middle East.

In 1946, Josip Broz Tito’s Communist regime arrested a large number of the Mladi Muslimani, including Izetbegovic himself. Imprisonment, however, did not deter Izetbegovic from the Islamist cause, and in his most famous political manifesto, the Islamic Declaration of 1970, he declared that there could be “no peace or co-existence between Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions,” anticipating of course the concept of perpetual jihad on behalf of the triumph of an international Islamic caliphate that would be promoted by Osama bin Laden and other jihadis two decades later. Moreover, Izetbegovic made clear in the Islamic Declaration his distinct preference for more radical Islamic states such as Pakistan, while reserving his criticism for moderate, secular Islamic states such as Turkey. As the scholar Vjekoslav Perica noted in his 2002 book Balkan Idols, “The Pakistan parallel also revealed Izetbegovic’s vision of Yugoslavia’s fate as analogous to that of India after 1948.”

Izetbegovic and his colleagues were galvanized by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran, which made them feel part of an international movement. Several of Izetbegovic’s closest collaborators at the time secretly went to Iran in January 1982 to attend anniversary celebrations marking the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and to attend a congress aimed at the reunification of Sunni and Shia Islam. These activities, together with the views promoted in the Islamic Declaration, earned Izetbegovic a second prison term in 1983, along with a dozen other Islamist activists in Bosnia.

In 1990, those same activists would form the core of Izetbegovic’s political party, the Stranka Demokratske Akcije (Party of Democratic Action, or SDA). One of those tried with Izetbegovic in 1983, Omer Behmen, was in 1992 entrusted with the job of becoming the Izetbegovic regime’s first ambassador to Tehran. Another one of the 1983 trial indictees, Hasan Cengic, would in the 1990s be widely seen as the leading Iranian agent in Bosnia. Iranian influence in the former Yugoslavia was also spread at this time by educational exchanges in which several hundred Yugoslav Muslim students were sent to study in Iranian institutions.

The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991–92 and the eruption of war in Bosnia intensified the relationship with the mullahs. Iran was one of the first Islamic countries to try to provide support to the Izetbegovic regime, although its efforts were at the start stymied by a UN Security Council arms embargo imposed on the belligerents in Bosnia, and the fact that Croatia, the main conduit for arms transfers to the Bosnian Muslims, was not eager to see Izetbegovic’s army grow too strong. Despite the arms embargo, but with tacit approval from the Clinton administration, the Iranians provided Izetbegovic’s war effort with considerable military, intelligence, and logistical support. Throughout this period, the Iranians developed an extensive intelligence network throughout the territory and in the various institutions controlled by Izetbegovic’s forces. During the war and after the Dayton Agreement ended the fighting in 1995, Iran continued to run a well-developed ring of “charities” throughout territory controlled by Izetbegovic’s forces, in cities such as Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Bihac, and Visoko.

The Izetbegovic regime had no doubts about the superiority of Iran as a model over other possible alternatives. According to the scholar Cees Wiebes, during the war “Turkey and Saudi Arabia were very willing to deliver weapons and to lure Izetbegovic away from Iran, but the orientation of the Bosnian government was far more towards Iran.” American intelligence operatives in Bosnia came to the same conclusion. Robert Baer, a CIA agent stationed in Sarajevo during the war, later claimed that “In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Muslim government is a client of the Iranians . . . If it’s a choice between the CIA and the Iranians, they’ll take the Iranians any day.” By war’s end, public opinion polls showed some eighty-six percent of the Bosnian Muslim population expressed a positive attitude toward Iran.

This was also the conventional wisdom within the US State Department. Allowing Croats and Serbs to secede from Bosnia, according to one former American diplomat, would only result in “a non-viable rump Islamic state that would be a platform for Iranian terrorism.” Indeed, Washington would soon have dangerous evidence of the degree to which the Izetbegovic regime had become Iranian clients. When a new CIA station chief was sent to Sarajevo in 1995, he was immediately betrayed by his local Bosnian colleagues to Iranian agents who quickly began planning his assassination in a plot that was ultimately foiled.


After the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, one of the main goals of US policy in Bosnia became reducing the influence of Iran and the various mujahedin forces there. This proved a difficult task because pro-Iranian factions had by this time become deeply embedded in numerous institutions. According to a CIA report leaked to American journalist James Risen, Izetbegovic himself was “literally on the [Iranian] payroll,” receiving on just one occasion $500,000 in cash from Iranian agents. Tellingly, the Iranian ambassador to Bosnia was the only foreign diplomat accompanying Izetbegovic on his electoral campaign in 1996.

By 1997, it was estimated that Iran had approximately two hundred agents in various Bosnian institutions. One of their targets was the American-sponsored “arm and train” program for the Muslim-Croat Federation Army. Thanks to the support of key allies within the Izetbegovic regime, Iranian intelligence services were able to infiltrate drivers, translators, and clerical personnel into the program, all of whom had been picked by the pro-Iranian faction in Izetbegovic’s security service. For instance, the chief liaison with the US Defense Department for coordinating the “arm and train” program, General Dzemal Merdan, was also Izetbegovic’s officer in charge of relations with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and one of the founders of the “7th Muslim Brigade,” which had incorporated the mujahedin forces in Bosnia.

Iran also extended its influence throughout Bosnia by infiltrating agents into various charities, news agencies, and even a hamburger chain in Sarajevo. During this period, the Bosnian government was also sending military personnel to Iran for training.

The most concerted US effort to purge pro-Iranian officials from positions of influence in Bosnia was the removal of Hasan Cengic, one of Izetbegovic’s closest collaborators, who as noted earlier had gone to prison with the future leader in the 1980s and during the war was the SDA’s primary fundraiser abroad, using this position to establish strong contacts in many Islamic countries. In the summer of 1996, under strong American pressure (including a threat to halt the “arm and train” program), Izetbegovic was finally forced to dismiss Cengic as deputy defense minister in the federation, along with Bakir Alispahic, the first director of Izetbegovic’s secret intelligence service, the Agencija za istraživanje i dokumentaciju (“Agency for Research and Documentation,” or AID.)

Despite American objections, however, both Cengic and Alispahic continued to play very important roles within the SDA. Cengic himself was reputedly one of the wealthiest people in Bosnia, and the leader of the pro-Iranian wing of the SDA. Alispahic used his ties with Iran and his connections within the Bosnian Muslim intelligence community to amass a small fortune of his own, largely thanks to drug trafficking. According to the World Geopolitics of Drugs report for 1995 and 1996, Alispahic controlled an Iranian-funded Muslim drug-smuggling network stretching to Europe and North America.

Both during and after the war, Iran’s intelligence service, VEVAK, took particular interest in operating what US military personnel determined were essentially terrorist training camps. On February 14, 1996, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher travelled to Sarajevo, where, in a meeting with Izetbegovic, he insisted that such camps be closed. The Bosnian president personally assured Christopher that no such terrorist facilities existed in his country, but less than twenty-four hours later, NATO forces raided just such a camp, near the Bosnian town of Pogorelici, run by Iranian and Bosnian intelligence agents. Among the objects found at the camp were plans to NATO installations in Bosnia, essays on how to assassinate regime opponents, and booby-trapped children’s toys. The commandant of the facility was Bakir Alispahic, head of AID, who even today is the head of the security committee of Izetbegovic’s SDA party—despite being on the US black list of individuals prohibited from visiting the US because of terrorist ties.


The Iranian factor remains an important variable in the current Bosnian security calculus. To take but one example—Alija Izetbegovic’s son, Bakir Izetbegovic, currently a member of the three-man Bosnian presidency, is widely seen as the leader of the pro-Iranian faction in Bosnian Muslim political circles. Sarajevo is now home to the largest Iranian embassy in Europe and several hundred Iranians are active in Bosnia, whether as diplomats, attached to the Iranian Cultural Center in Sarajevo, as journalists or “charitable workers,” or in other roles. There is also a pro-Iranian, pro-Shiite faction within the Bosnian Muslim religious establishment (despite the fact that Bosnian Islam itself is Sunni). Since the end of the war, Iran has invested considerable sums and energy into promoting academic and cultural ties with elite circles in Bosnia. One example of such efforts was the establishment of a Persian-Bosnian College outside Sarajevo, which offers graduating students trips to Iran.

But despite the considerable money and energy invested in it, the concerted Iranian effort to establish a Balkan or Bosnian beachhead in Europe has had only partial success. An example of the limits to Iranian influence in Bosnia was the latter’s vote in June 2010 in favor of tightening sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council, suggesting that when push comes to shove, Bosnian elites realize that Iran has little to offer the country in comparison to the economic and security benefits they have to gain from Euro-Atlantic integration. Iran’s room to maneuver in Bosnia is also limited by the substantial autonomy of Bosnia’s Croat-populated cantons, or the Serb entity in Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, which has no sympathy for the Iranians. Moreover, a three-way struggle is taking place now within the Bosnian Muslim political and religious establishment, which pits Iranian sympathizers against one group that is in favor of closer ties with Saudi Arabia, and another group that now sees Turkey as the logical model for Bosnia.

Albania has been another Balkan country Iran has targeted in its attempt to create what Reza Shafa has called “a foothold in the European continent.” As in Bosnia, the attempted Iranian infiltration of Albania followed the pattern of setting up “charities” and “cultural organizations” that serve as front organizations for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence. Despite such efforts, however, Iran draws little sympathy in either elite circles or amongst the general population. President Sali Berisha, for instance, has been an outspoken critic of the Ahmadinejad regime; in August, for instance, Berisha claimed that “Ahmadinjad proves that he and his ideology are a growing threat to peace and stability in the Middle East . . . Ahmadinejad’s Nazi declarations should be a wake-­up call that Iran’s nuclear program should be stopped by any means, as the greatest threat to peace and stability in the world.”

Given such limitations, there is no threat of Iranian-style Islamic republics being established in Bosnia (or anywhere else in the Balkans for that matter). What is a very clear and present danger, however, is that Iranian cells, or pro-Iranian factions in Bosnia or elsewhere in the region, could become activated in a crisis in the Middle East, especially as a logistical infrastructure for an Iranian counterstrike in the Balkans, should Israel or the US strike Tehran’s nuclear installations. While militant Islamism holds little appeal for the vast majority of Muslims in Bosnia and throughout the Balkans, the existence of small extremist groups provides ample reason for concern and vigilance. The 9/11 attacks showed what a handful of individuals was capable of, and the revelation two years ago by the Bosnian security minister that there were three thousand potential terrorists in Bosnia shows the extent to which southeastern Europe should remain a region of vital security concern to the US and other Western nations.

Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security specialist based in New York.

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