Bosnia-Herzegovina is the primary hub for Iran’s espionage activities in the Balkans. Iran’s efforts to cultivate influence in Bosnia date back to the early 1990s before the collapse of communism and breakup of Yugoslavia. During that period, “Iran cultivated a tight clandestine relationship with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the dominant political faction among Bosnian Muslims. For years, Tehran lavished men, money, and guns on the SDA and established a deep and wide agent network that penetrated Bosnia’s security services, military, and political cliques.” Iran’s alliance with the SDA helped its civilian and IRGC intelligence agencies gain influence among Bosnia’s Muslims, as Iranian “spies with cash” moved to “buy politicians, spread radicalism, and recruit and train terrorists.”
With its ties to the SDA cemented, Iran moved to set up an embassy and consulates around Bosnia which double as bases for espionage and other covert activities. Iran has displayed a continuing willingness to place sectarian differences aside by arming and training Salafi jihadists in Bosnia. During the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, Iran saw an opportunity to expand its geopolitical influence in Europe and capitalized upon it. Iranian intelligence agents, both from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and IRGC “played a major secret role” by “training Al-Qa’ida-linked mujahidin groups, as well as radical units of the Bosnian Army that were responsible for numerous war crimes.”
The Iranian spy network was ordered out of the country following the 1995 Dayton Accords, but Iranian intelligence has maintained a presence that lingers in the present day. The MOIS maintains a strong presence within Iran’s outsized embassy in Sarajevo, where intelligence operatives operating under diplomatic cover come frequently for short term rotations from Vienna, which is the MOIS’s main base in east central Europe. Meanwhile, the bulk Iran’s intelligence operations, particularly those of the IRGC, have shifted to the Iranian NGO network.
In 2012, the Bosnian investigative newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna issued a report detailing Iran’s extensive espionage presence remaining in Bosnia. The Iranian Cultural Center in Sarajevo is the primary hub for Iranian intelligence activities, and the Ibn-Sina Research Institute and Persian-Bosnian College are also important intelligence fronts. The Persian-Bosnian College is the Bosnian branch of Al-Mustafa International University. The Iran-backed educational institutions in Bosnia serve as recruitment centers, and hundreds of Bosnian citizens annually are sponsored to travel to Iran to further their indoctrination, “all arranged and paid for by Iranian intelligence.” An Iranian funded charity, the Mulla Sadra Foundation, “finances the construction of local mosques and religious educational schools. Moreover it hand outs economic assistance to lower-income Muslim citizens of the country and also provides scholarships for students wishing to enter religious education in Iran.”
Following the 2012 Burgas attacks, Western diplomats applied pressure to Bosnia to rid itself of Iranian influence, emphasizing that Bosnia’s future lies with the EU rather than Tehran. Such calls have typically resulted in Iran slowing the pace of its illicit activities in Bosnia until the situation blew over. Bosnian authorities were finally moved to act against Iran in 2013, however, after observing Iranian “diplomats,” using Iranian diplomatic tags, making frequent visits to Gornja Maoča, a “more or less open training camp for jihad-minded radicals” in northeast Bosnia. Bosnia expelled two Iranian diplomats linked to the MOIS, but by 2014, Iran had once again stepped up the tempo of its intelligence operations in Bosnia according to security officials. This included resuming visits to Gornja Maoča, but using foreign IDs to disguise their Iranian links.