Headquartered in the Iranian holy city of Qom and with affiliated religious seminaries and Islamic colleges in over 50 countries, Al-Mustafa International University is one of Iran’s main arms for the dissemination of Khomeinist ideology abroad.
Al-Mustafa International University is tasked with training the next generation of Iran’s foreign Shi’a clerics, religious scholars, and missionaries. Since its establishment in 2007, approximately 30,000 pupils have graduated from Al-Mustafa, with many going on to subsequently teach for the university or serve as Shi’a missionaries in various countries, spreading Iran’s Khomeinist ideology around the world. It is estimated that Al-Mustafa has 40,000 foreign students enrolled at present, roughly half of whom are studying at campuses within Iran. Many Al-Mustafa graduates are selected by the Iranian regime to establish religious and cultural centers in their home countries, where they can then recruit students and inculcate loyalty to the Islamic Revolution among local populations.
Iranian Backers: Al-Mustafa was founded in 2007 by Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who directs its activities and is the school’s highest authority. In 2016, Iran allocated $74 million in its budget to Al-Mustafa, and it is believed to receive more funding from the Office of the Supreme Leader and from his vast business and charitable empires.
The groundwork for the establishment of Al-Mustafa University was laid in September 1979, when Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the Islamic Republic’s founders considered the spiritual forefather of Iran’s reformist faction, formed the Council for Managing Non-Iranian Seminarians’ Affairs in order to attract non-Iranians interested in studying revolutionary Shi’a Islam in Iran. The Council established numerous branches abroad, particularly in Africa, and “sought to provide ideological training to foreigners in Iran and, if possible, in their home countries. It also supported foreigners in building infrastructures for ideological propaganda and networking in their home countries.” In 1993, Supreme Leader Khamenei ousted his rival from the institution and set about modernizing it, establishing one section for foreign students in Iran and one for ideological training outside Iran. In 2007, the two divisions merged into a unified Al-Mustafa International University.
The current chairman of Al-Mustafa, Ayatollah Ali Reza A’arafi, is a hard-line member of Khamenei’s inner circle whose name has been floated as a potential successor for the position of Supreme Leader. During the early portion of A’arafi’s revolutionary career, he played a key role in Khamenei’s push to “Islamize” Iran’s university and seminary system, moving as head of the Office for Cooperation between Clergy and Hawza (seminary) to replace standard humanities textbooks with versions compliant with Khomeinist ideology. During his tenure as head of Al-Mustafa, A’arafi “has magnified the regime’s efforts to export its revolutionary ideology, building a colossal infrastructure in Iran and dozens of other countries toward this end and constructing a sophisticated international network rooted in strengthened ties with groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and partnerships with other academic, religious, or political institutions or individuals”.
Revolutionary Activities Abroad
Al-Mustafa offers a generous package of financial incentives to entice students, in effect buying their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader. The majority of students pay no tuition and are given enough money for them and their families to travel to Qom for their studies. Al-Mustafa’s Farsi website states that, “students in its Iran campuses receive monthly stipends and are provided with free housing, home loans, health care for the students and their families and child care for children. It offers financial support for families, school for children, professional education and job for spouses as well as summer camps for them. In foreign branches, students also receive a wide range of financial assistance.”
Al-Mustafa’s diffuse international presence anchors subjects loyal to Khomeinist ideology in societies around the globe and serves as a fertile recruiting pool for Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). There have been reports of Al-Mustafa students, particularly from Afghan and Pakistani backgrounds, joining the Iran-backed militias fighting in Syria to preserve the Assad regime. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the core members of the Pakistani Zainabiyoun Brigade, an IRGC-trained elite volunteer outfit fighting in Syria, come from Al-Mustafa University. As of 2015, The Zainabiyoun Brigade had over 1000 members, but its ranks have grown over the years due to sustained recruitment. A similar Afghan brigade, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, also claims Al-Mustafa alumni among its ranks. These two proxy militias are heavily-concentrated in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor region. In a July 2017 interview, Ayatollah Ali Reza A’atif admitted that many graduates of his seminaries “found martyrdom or became disabled [in Syria]. But a large number of them are still fighting.”
Al-Mustafa University indoctrinates its student body by way of anti-Semitic and anti-American curriculums, prompting concerns that the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun Brigades could be mobilized against Israeli or U.S. interests in the region. The two terrorist groups have already transferred fighters from eastern Syria towards the Syrian border with Israel.
Although some members in the Pakistani and Afghan proxies are incentivized by monetary compensation or coerced into deploying to the Syrian battlefield, the leaders of these groups are aligned with the precepts of Khomeinism, particularly its radical anti-American and anti-Israel elements. In fact, recruits from Al-Mustafa University have become high-ranking members in Iranian proxies deployed to Syria. For instance, Alireza Tivasolii, also known as Abu Hamed, the commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, was educated at Al-Mustafa and was killed in Syria in 2015. His ascent from Al-Mustafa to the top rank in the brigade underscores the effectiveness of the university’s recruitment and radicalization program. The title of “martyr” that he received after he was killed in combat, of course, appeals to other members of the Afghan Shi’a population, particularly disenfranchised young men who find that violent jihad provides a path to eternal salvation.
In December 2020, the U.S. government levied terrorism sanctions against Al-Mustafa International University under counterterrorism Executive Order (E.O.) 13224. The U.S. Department of the Treasury accused Al-Mustafa of enabling the IRGC Quds Force’s “intelligence operations by allowing its student body, which includes large numbers of foreign and American students, to serve as an international recruitment network.” Additionally, the department confirmed that some of the Afghani and Pakistani fighters that deployed to Syria under the command of the IRGC were recruited at Al-Mustafa. The Chairman of Al-Mustafa Alireza Arafi called the sanctions “shameful,” adding that “pugnacity, persecution and seeking supremacy and oppression is hidden and visible in the foundation of the arrogant rule of the United States; the most obvious manifestation of this abhorrent move is the violation of human values.” While claiming the moral high-ground, Arafi paid no heed to the fact that his government sent the often poor Afghan and Pakistani fighters, including children, into battle as if they were “cannon fodder” to bolster the Assad regime, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shi’a militias. Human Rights Watch has identified at least 14 minors who fought and died in Syria for the Fatemiyoun Division.
In addition to providing the ideological underpinnings that inspire a portion of its students to fight for Iranian interests in Syria, Al-Mustafa trains clerics around the world to spread Khomeinism in their home countries. The university boasts a presence in over 30 African countries and claims to have 5000 African students enrolled, including 2000 studying in Iran who return home several times a year for missionary purposes. Al-Mustafa operates several branches in European countries, most notably the Islamic College of London. Graduates of Al-Mustafa such as Italian cleric Abbas DiPalma have gone on to form Iranian cultural centers in their home countries, such as the Imam Mahdi Center in Rome. Al-Mustafa has also dispatched Lebanese graduates as missionaries to Latin America, where they seek to create inroads with expat communities and proselytize among local populations.
Iranian educational institutions are effective cover for the spread of Iran’s radical ideology and the recruitment of extremists, because they are difficult to sanction. Indeed, Iran’s entire network of mosques, Islamic centers, charities, and institutions, known collectively as Dawah systems, are “generally untouchable from the counterterrorist financing perspective due to legal and practical issues,” according to the Hudson Institute. Moreover, Dawah systems are not easily shut down, even when they are suspected of aiding and abetting terrorism. A 2019 Europol report emphasized this point precisely: “one of the difficulties in closing down centers…is the providing of substantial proof [of their link to terrorism].” In other words, evidence of the Dawah systems’ true reason for existing often eludes the relevant authorities.