“Iran? Yes, Iran has a presence in places like Bulgaria,” our source says, “but you will not easily detect it. They act quietly and without much publicity.” This is the key take away from the conversation that started two hours ago, while rain drips down the windows of the nondescript building in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. On specific request, the identity of our contact remains anonymous.
Our source is surely right about the lack of readily available public information regarding Iranian presence and influence in this particular country. We want to know more and ask our source if he can elaborate. He puts a nervous smile on his face and answers quickly: “Most Bulgarian politicians are unaware of two things: that Iranians have developed a network that passes through the Balkans and that they have turned countries like Bulgaria into logistical bases.” He adds that Bulgarian politicians “either choose to ignore the question or are totally in the dark.”
The conversations we had with sources close to the Bulgarian counterintelligence services confirm this idea. Tehran’s sustained local activities have gone either unnoticed or are not seen as a problem. However, the details revealed to us in conversations with sources close to Hezbollah, representatives of official institutions, and military and diplomatic personnel demonstrate a rather different and more nuanced picture.
Balkans: Out of Focus
While the lion’s share of attention in this regards is going to countries like Russia and China, less visible ones like Iran also deserve serious attention. The Iranians seem not interested in traditional soft-power attraction and persuasion tactics but rather in manipulation in their own distinct manner, for example by influencing social media discourse.
While the Iranian global disinformation operations and their covert activities in France, Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia have drawn significant attention, their presence on the Balkans remains slightly out of focus. A reason for this could be that the Balkans are not usually associated with highly visible Iranian presence or activities, unlike Russia and Turkey that are considered as key regional players.
The Balkans are of interest for Iran, because Iran views the region as a suitable “quiet” logistical platform, outside the focus of global intelligence and security agencies, with relatively lax security, weak institutions, and pervasive corruption. Because of the Balkans’ geographic position, the region offers Iran a convenient bridgehead to Central and Western Europe.
It is clear that Tehran has cultivated its “stealth” presence in this region quietly but steadily for the past 30 years.
Iran’s Stable Friendships with Bosnia
In retrospective, Tehran was able to create a major European outpost during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. Researcher Kyle Orton points to the good ties that the first Bosnian president had with Iran. Alija Izetbegovic was Bosnia’s president between 1992 and 1996 and had been receiving support from the Iranian government since the 1980s.
The ayatollahs, with the help of the Iranian intelligence and especially the paramilitary corps (Pasdaran), exercised major influence on the training of radical units in the Bosnian army. They also provided logistic support, weapons, and munitions.
The Iranian intelligence and security operatives have left a significant footprint on the Bosnian post-war internal political struggles, as illustrated by the case of the infamous Iranian-trained special operations unit Seve (Larks), led by Nedzad Ugljen.
It could be argued that Iran never left Bosnia once the war ended, as Tehran kept investing and maintained excellent ties with local politicians. In fact, the Iranians have adapted and upgraded the networks they created during the war, to keep their influence and presence.
The fact that most Muslims in Bosnia are Sunni is no problem for Shiite Iran, as Tehran does not hide its aim to continue to use Bosnia as a strategic outpost facing Central and Western Europe.
Besides being a convenient back-end base, the Balkans are ripe for Iranian exploits due to the existing gaps in security, weak state institutions, and widespread corruption.
The most visible instance of such security gap exploit is the 2012 attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, when a Hezbollah agent carried out a suicide bomb attack on a bus transporting Israeli tourists, killing five of them and the Bulgarian bus driver. Another 32 Israeli vacationers got injured.
To remain outside suspicion from the local authorities, Hezbollah’s operatives often use Iranian documents or travel on Western passports to the region and beyond. This was also the case with the bus attack, where the perpetrators were carrying Australian and Canadian identification documents.
Bulgaria is illustrative to the changing nature of Hezbollah’s local presence. Five years ago, the organization’s operatives acted rather quietly to avoid scrutiny and did not target Bulgaria directly, but the 2012 bus attack became a turning point.
Unfortunately, such assaults are not a novelty in the region. The 2011 attack on the American embassy in Bosnia carried out by the Serbian Mevlid Jasarevic, aided by his accomplices who were congregating in the Bosnian “Jihadi village” of Gornja Maoca, has demonstrated the scope and reach of the Iranian networks on the ground, as well as their links to various Bosnian Salafi groups in Bosnia and Austria.
However, despite the seriousness of these incidents, the public and media continue to underestimate the potential of the Iranian operations in the region.
Information on terrorism on the Balkans yields an overwhelming focus on Saudi Arabia’s role and influence and fails to highlight the role of Iran and its proxies. A large number of people believes that Iran is in no position to influence the Sunni population, that the Balkans have turned their back on instability, and that the ethnicity is more important than religious identity. On closer scrutiny, this is not necessarily true, neither is it always the case.
Expanding Influence Beyond Bosnia
The Balkans have a lengthy history of being a playground for diverse and dangerous groups motivated by ideology, greed, and violence. These range anywhere from local ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis to Salafists and far-left anarchists, who all share their appetite for violence and destruction.
While the main media and academic focus has been directed on the far-right nationalists and Salafists, Iranian proxies and their interests and operations in the region have not received much attention. They might be “under the radar,” but for decades Iran has been seeking to locate “the weakest link” in European chain of security and Southeastern Europe. The Balkans, unfortunately, represent such a link.
Factors like the erosion of trust between local stakeholders, a lack of international interest, and problems related to timely intelligence sharing provide Iran and Hezbollah with opportunities to exploit the strategic location of the region, as a bridge between Europe and Asia and as a suitable platform for launching operations in Central and Western Europe.
The foiled bomb attack on an Iranian opposition group in France this summer and the more recent arrests in Sweden related to a thwarted attack in Denmark have demonstrated the complexity and scope of the Iranian operations. They also show the role of the Iranian operatives under diplomatic cover stationed in various European capitals. For example, in connection to the foiled attack in Paris, Assadollah Assadi was arrested, an Iranian diplomat based in Vienna.
These incidents point out that the Iranians are either in the process of expanding their network or have simply activated an already existing network that in any case is connected to the Balkans, even if only for the sake of logistics.
Our sources confirm that the Bulgarian authorities, for instance, are aware of the existence of such Hezbollah networks in at least three of the largest and most populous Bulgarian cities, namely in the capital Sofia, Plovdiv, and the Black Sea port of Varna.
According to our sources among the Lebanese community in Bulgaria, Hezbollah’s operatives are most active in the capital and Varna. Some of them routinely cross the border with Serbia as tourists or under official cover. In Serbia, they gather information regarding infrastructure, administrative buildings, and anything other relevant relating to the Jewish community and Israeli business interests on the Balkans.
It seems that some Bulgarian politicians that are currently part of the governing coalition are well aware of Hezbollah’s presence and the Iranian quest for influence, as they go openly to defend Hezbollah and Iran.
Volen Siderov, the leader of the nationalist party Attack, has visited Iran this year and insists that Bulgaria should have attempted to use its E.U. Presidency to improve the ties between the bloc and Iran. Siderov has called for direct flights between the Bulgarian and Iranian capital, as well as for ignoring the American sanctions against Iran. In addition, in his party’s newspaper, he often describes the positives of maintaining close ties with Iran and appeals for rapprochement.
For nationalists like Siderov and his allies, it does not seem to matter that the Hezbollah networks operating directly on Bulgarian soil present a danger for the local security.
It seems that the Bulgarian and Serbian authorities do not have substantial detailed data regarding local Hezbollah activity, despite their awareness of the presence of the organizations’ members on the ground.
According to sources from the Bulgarian intelligence community, the Iranian proxy has its own assets in Macedonia and Kosovo, even though Iran has not officially recognized Kosovo. In gaining a clearer picture of Hezbollah’s activities on the ground, the Arab communities of these Balkan countries have a lot to share.
In Sofia, for instance, Hezbollah has at least two designated places for meetings where topics ranging from planning business operations to fostering contacts with local political forces are discussed, according to a Lebanese living in Bulgaria who previously took part in the organizational activities.
All of the more prominent businesspeople who support Hezbollah pay monthly taxes for the development and maintenance of the local network.
Hezbollah’s dependence on income from businesses is vulnerable, as the American sanctions kick in and the nervousness is clearly detectable in various quarters. Nervous are not only the Iranians who promote close business ties with Tehran, but also a score of Bulgarian companies that work with or in Iran, as at least a dozen companies participate in electricity distribution, automobile part, and petroleum production.
Targeted ‘Soft’ Approach Beyond Business and Politics
When analyzing Iran’s “stealth presence” and the pursuit of influence on the Balkans, we should look beyond the strengthening political ties, expansion of business interests, and augmentation of open and covert trade networks.
A specific direction to look would be the Iranian efforts to enhance influence in religious and cultural aspects, while microtargeting the local Muslim population. The case of Bulgaria is illustrative again. Similar to the Turkish approach, the Iranians are targeting very specific local communities that would be vulnerable and prone to outside influence. In Bulgaria, the Alawites serve as such a community.
For nearly 400 years, the Alawites lived on Bulgarian territory after their forefathers came to the former Ottoman Empire. Part of this community came from what is today’s Iran, Syria, and Asia Minor. Currently, the Alawites represent only a small fraction of Bulgaria’s nearly one million strong Muslim community. Until the 1989 fall of the communist system in the country, they remained a very closed and tight-knit community that jealously has guarded its ritual and traditions.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Tehran was set to revitalize its contacts with the Balkan Muslims, as Iran attaches geostrategic importance to the region. For the past 20 years, Iranians have managed to create direct and active contacts with the local Bulgarian Alawite community via its Sofia-based embassy and the attached Iranian Cultural Center.
These contacts are quite solid and lasting and work directly with Alawite and Shia communities in the country. They are also unobstructed, as the Bulgarian government does not consider Iran to be a prime source of danger.
Our conversations with five students who took part in Iran-sponsored programs shed some limited light on Iran’s approach towards the Bulgarian Alawite youth.
In the past year alone, Iranian officials have visited several Bulgarian settlements with a predominately Alawite population. Iranian embassy personnel seems to be strongly connected with the Iranian Cultural Center – a structure directly linked with Iranian intelligence services.
Specific sustained interest is detected in the villages of Sevar and Madrevo in northeastern Bulgaria. These villages have a total population of almost 3,000 people, a number that might not seem large but is substantial on the local scale, where most villages and townships have no more than 200 inhabitants. For this targeted population, the Iranian Cultural Center offers the students of Alawite ancestry language courses, in addition to religious education that is not regulated by the Bulgarian authorities.
Potential for Harm
In sum, the Iranian presence in different Balkan countries appears to be somewhat limited, “low key,” and “stealth.” It is, however, not without a serious potential for harm. It heavily relies on a quiet but constant pursuit of Iran’s political and security goals in a region that holds strategic importance for the planners in Tehran.
This persistent “stealth” effort has its specifics and offers distinct advantages, as our source cautiously but pointedly remarked towards the end of our conversation on that rainy day in Sofia. “Certainly, the Iranians are quite aware that the key players on the Balkans are Russia and Turkey,” he said, “but Tehran knows that it can utilize its most obvious advantage: the lack of historical burden in its relations with the local communities.”
The point our source makes is clearly driven home, as he concludes before parting that “when you work with Iran you work with someone who is not perceived as an old enemy or a conqueror. Unlike in the Middle East, in Europe and especially on the Balkans, Iran is a topic deemed distant and nebulous.”Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.