Iran’s expansionist plans pose real danger to Europe
Ever since 1979, Europe has held a pivotal position in the Iranian regime’s plans due to its geopolitical, economic and historical importance to Iran. In Tehran’s view, Europe plays a central role in enabling the regime to expand the Islamic Republic under the leadership of the Guardian Jurist — currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Europe, Iran’s regime has already launched the first phase of its expansionism via proselytizing and religious indoctrination. Once this stage is complete, the second phase involving politicization will begin. In this first phase, the regime relies on soft power tools, such as establishing cultural centers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), holding conferences and events in European capitals, and deploying missionaries to help in indoctrination and sectarian mobilization. The regime’s use of soft power in Europe, rather than its usual military tools, is attributable to Europe’s relative geographic remoteness from Iran, the small number of Shiites currently present there, and the region’s stable political systems, which are barriers to creating the appropriate conditions for expanding Iranian influence via hard power. The same barriers are not present in Iran’s immediate vital spheres, such as in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, thanks to geographical proximity and weak political systems, the latter often already undermined by Iranian proxies and sectarian infighting.
Iran’s regime has exploited several facets of European life to infiltrate the continent and increase its influence there, including Europe’s atmosphere of religious tolerance and openness.
The regime has also taken advantage of European openness in allowing minorities to practice their religious rituals, as well as the availability of financial havens offering tax loopholes to establish cultural centers and NGOs, and laundering massive sums of money, with Europe’s ignorance of the regime’s agenda making it easier for Tehran to disguise its objectives.
By spreading its hard-line brand of Shiism to Europe, Iran’s regime seeks to influence European intellectual, political and economic spheres. The Tehran regime has aimed to increase its leverage by creating lobby groups in Europe to guide and shape political decisions in favor of Iran.
This is a prelude to the second phase of the regime’s expansionism, which involves military mobilization, among other factors. This will be enabled and assisted by the regime’s utilization of Shiites in Europe to serve its expansionist project and achieve its security and intelligence objectives.
Tehran has established relations with Shiite centers in Europe. The role of these centers now exceeds their traditional Da’wa and spiritual objectives, with the regime exploiting its relations with them to serve its foreign policy agenda and boost its soft power. Iran also uses these centers to present its fundamentalist Velayat-e Faqih doctrine as an inspirational political project and to carry out security, intelligence and terrorist missions inside some European countries, in addition to building international networks to thwart US sanctions.
Iran’s impact on these centers has been so profound that they have enabled the regime to penetrate Europe’s Arab and Islamic communities to recruit Muslims to its extremist interpretation of Shiism. These recruits have been used by the Iranian regime as fundamentalist missionary tools in their homelands.
Iran’s regime has arguably refined its strategy through its massively destructive policies in the Middle East, where it has initiated or exploited the chaos unleashed by civil wars in which it is a key player to unleash unimaginable terror and sectarian strife via its network of sectarian militias. The resulting state of anarchy, in which normal rule is impossible, allows the regime to intensify its agenda of indoctrination while governments are too busy struggling to survive. The miserable conditions now prevalent in parts of the Middle East indicate the results of the regime’s ruinous interventions, annihilating the potential of the region, destroying infrastructure, and displacing millions of citizens. This military intervention was preceded by the regime’s soft power phase of engaging in missionary work in order to create a popular base in the region to gain loyalty and support, with this base then politicized, militarized and integrated into national ruling regimes.
This soft power phase, during which the Iranian regime disseminates its fundamentalist ideology, is a vital period. But Tehran and its proxies can be stopped before phase two is initiated. Doing so is essential to halt the regime’s extremely well-planned schemes aimed at sabotaging, dividing and weakening countries. The financial and political costs of intervening to thwart the regime at this early phase are far less than the costs when the regime has moved to its advanced expansionist phase, as can be seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, not to mention Iran itself, with the world proving incapable of resisting and expelling the Iranian regime’s forces and proxy militias in Iraq, Syria and other nations.
It is no secret that Iran’s regime, represented by its proxies and tools, whether the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah or others, has committed various terrorist operations in the European arena (in Greece, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Belgium) since the 1980s. These terror operations include the Iranian-backed Hezbollah hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the killing of a US navy diver in June 1985, and the assassination of Iranian dissidents in exile. It was also discovered that the regime plotted to plant a bomb targeting an Iranian opposition conference in Paris in 2018.
Europe’s ignorance of the regime’s agenda makes it easier for Tehran to disguise its objectives.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
While European countries have already begun a long overdue crackdown on the operations of some Shiite centers, this action should be accompanied by the introduction of legislation restricting the scope of their work. European authorities should also insist on these centers cutting their links with the Iranian regime and ending their suspicious sources of funding. In addition, European authorities should deprive them of their tax-exempt status and other privileges. Denmark and France have already taken steps in this respect.
The Iranian regime’s relations with these Shiite centers provide it with loyalists who can be employed to serve the so-called Islamic Republic’s malign influence and expansionist project worldwide. Such relations also give Tehran room for circumventing US sanctions and setting up transnational networks for trading weapons and nuclear materials, as well as hidden channels to engage in other illegal activities.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami