Uncovering Iran’s Espionage-Terror Apparatus in the Balkans

As the Western world moves inexorably closer to a full-blown crisis with Iran over its nuclear program – and make no mistake, whether or not bombs get dropped, we (by which I mean NATO as well as the U.S. and Israel) are in a major league crisis with Tehran – the issue of malign Iranian influence in the West continues to rise in importance.

Tehran has not exactly helped itself by engaging in bizarre behavior like using a used car salesman to plot acts of terror in the United States, but Iran lacks a well developed infrastructure for espionage and terrorism in America, and much the same is true in many Western countries. A couple months back Canada shut the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, since its diplomats spies had brazenly surveilled and harassed Iranian emigres and regime opponents in Canada for years. Even in Germany, where Iranian spies used to be thick on the ground, their presence is less than it used to be due to excessively public and nasty misdeeds by Iranian operatives, like gunning down regime opponents in Tony Montana style. Western Europe isn’t quite the benign operating environment for Tehran’s spies that it once was, unlike the Middle East, and even Turkey, where Iranian operatives are notably active.

The one place in Europe where Iranian spies are not hard to find, and they have a relatively free hand, is the Balkans, especially Bosnia, where Tehran’s spooks have a second home, amounting to a reasonably secure operating base close to the heart of Europe. This has taken on new urgency given Iran’s apparent involvement in July’s terrorist bombing in Burgas, in nearby Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists. In recent months, the U.S. government and its allies have put pressure on the Bosnian government to cut some of the too-cozy ties between Sarajevo and Iranian intelligence, and three months ago Western ambassadors read Bosnia’s security minister the riot act about ridding the country of its substantial Iranian spy network.

There’s a lot of excavation to be done, since Iran’s spy network in that country has deep roots, being over twenty years old, dating to even before Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) declared independence from ailing Yugoslavia. As I’ve written about previously in detail, beginning in 1990, 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. Beginning in 1995, when NATO came to BiH to enact the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the country’s terrible three-year war, U.S. pressure caused Iran to whittle down its espionage operations in Bosnia, which included robust ties to mujahidin groups affiliated with Al-Qa’ida, but it never shut them down altogether.

Just how much of that espionage-terror network remains in BiH today has been laid bare by an exclusive report in Slobodna Bosna, the country’s leading investigative newsmagazine. Entitled “Iranians’ Secret Diplomatic Offensive in Bosnia,” and clearly based on a lot of leaked intelligence reports, this is the most detailed description yet of what Tehran’s clandestine activities in BiH actually are, and what they mean for European security.

Iran’s outsized embassy in Sarajevo hosts a lot of Iranian spies, most of them serving under diplomatic cover, but there are plenty more operatives across Bosnia working for Iranian and Islamic NGOs. Although the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or VEVAK in Farsi) has a station inside Iran’s embassy which is headed by Abolghassem Rafie Parhizkar, VEVAK is largely dependent on operatives who come to BiH, short-term, from Vienna, which is the main VEVAK base in East Central Europe.

Far more active in Bosnia is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran), which has a much bigger and more active footprint in BiH than VEVAK, Tehran’s conventional spy organization. The Pasdaran chief in the country, according to Slobodna Bosna, is Hamzeh Doolabi, and his deputy is Jadidi Afsaneh, while the report identifies as other senior IRGC officers Shir Del Ali Asghar, Ali Akbar Dadrasi Iranji, and Abouyasani Ramezanali, who work under cover at the Iranian embassy. Given the IRGC’s active involvement in terrorism in many countries since 1979, this large presence must be assessed a serious concern.

In addition to a busy Iranian Cultural Center, a longtime front for Iranian espionage in the country, Bosnia has a plethora of Iranian-financed NGOs, many of which seem to have only modest official duties, and the report names several of these organizations and the suspected Iranian intelligence operatives in them:

Ibn-Sina Scientific Research Institute (Soleimani Amiri Mohammed Bagher, recently the institute’s director, his deputy Abassi Valadi Mohammad Hossein, director’s advisor Abedpour Saeid)

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (TV director Ramin Mansouri)

Mullah Sadra Foundation (director Shaykh Akbar Eydi)

Persian-Bosnian College (PBC head Mohamed Jafer Zarean).

Observing that there are many Iranian businesses operating in BiH, the report explains that Mellat Bank, an Iranian financial institution under UN sanctions due to its role in suspected nuclear activities, previously attempted to open a branch in Sarajevo, but was blocked by authorities. Last year Star Commercial Company, an Iranian firm located in the Sarajevo neighborhood of Hrasno, opened its doors as a management consulting shop, but Slobodna Bosna states that it appears to be a front company designed to give Iran illicit access to European markets. Another cause for concern are the hundreds of Bosnian citizens annually who are sponsored for travel to Iran and other Islamic countries, often for religious educational purposes, all arranged and paid for by Iranian intelligence.

The report names as a key figure in the Iranian spy network Fikret Muslimovic, who is roughly the gray eminence of the extremist underworld in BiH. His biography is one of the strangest in the annals of recent jihad. A career counterintelligence officer in the Yugoslav Communist military, who made his career rooting Islamic extremists out of the army, when Yugoslavia collapsed Muslimovic underwent a conversion as total as it was sudden. He quickly became the SDA’s top intelligence official, noted for his fanatical newfound faith, and during the 1990s he was responsible for handling Sarajevo’s relationships with Al-Qa’ida and Tehran. Slobodna Bosna‘s report makes clear that Muslimovic, who ostensibly retired from his day job over a decade ago, maintains his tight relationship with Iranian spies, and he meets with them regularly.

Recent developments in this story ought to cause deep concern across Europe. The report notes that in the first half of 2012, Sarajevo approved visas for 200 new Iranian businessmen to enter the country, many of whom are suspected of having ties to VEVAK or Pasdaran. Additionally, Iranian spies (the report names Hamid Roughani and Sohrab Jadidi, who are ostensibly cultural workers) have visited the mujahidin community at Gornja Maoca, which has been linked to several terrorists and terrorist attacks in recent years, including Mevlid Jasarevic, the young man who shot up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011.  Pasdaran has established ties with Nusret Imamovic, who resides at Gornja Maoca and can be considered the de facto emir of violent extremism in Bosnia today.

Of perhaps greatest concern, Slobodna Bosna reports that, among the many suspicious Iranians who have entered Bosnia in recent months are several senior intelligence operatives who have perpetrated acts of terrorism abroad. One of them, whom the report does not name, is known to have recently been in India, Georgia, and Thailand – the exact countries where, over the past year, Pasdaran operatives have plotted attacks on Israeli targets. Bosnian security officials are preparing for the worst, with good cause