A woman, wearing a hijab and a protective face mask, walks at Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, May 2, 2021.

Iran Expands Influence Through Islamic Students Associations In Europe

Monday, 12/04/2023

The Islamic Republic is using Iranian students abroad, including those on government scholarships, to pursue its Islamist agenda.

University students living in the diaspora or studying abroad are utilized as an asset to promote Shiite Islamism in Western democracies and recruited to transfer information and know-how to the um-ul-Qora (Islamic motherland).

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Ahmad Vaezi to oversee the Islamic students' organizations in Europe in 2020. As Khamenei’s trustee, he is the direct link between Khamenei’s office and the Islamic Students Associations in Europe. An ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic regime, writing in a letter to members of this union, he said "Try to follow your role model, the great leader of Islam, martyr Qasem Soleimani,” referring to the slain commander killed by the US in 2020. Responsible for the violent proxies across the Middle East, Soleimani has now become a symbolic figurehead for the Iranian regime spreading its influence and destruction not only across the Middle East but to young students in Europe. 

Until the 1979 revolution, Islamic student associations in the West mainly consisted of Iranian students and worked against the Pahlavi monarchy while most of them were receiving generous scholarships provided by the government.

Iran's ruler Ali Khamenei and Ahmad Vaezi

After the revolution, these associations, due to the financial need for government resources and the desire of students to gain power and status through the new regime, were completely at the service of the ideology of the Islamic Republic and purged the opposition forces such as Marxists and MEK members. For about four decades, these associations start their annual gatherings with the messages of Khamenei, Iran’s leader.

While millions of Iranian university students pursue their education by getting loans, working, and using their hard-earned parents’ savings, these students and their family members have a luxury life in universities abroad. 

Due to this privilege, they are willing to perform several functions for the regime including spreading political propaganda, participating in anti-Israel Qods (Quds) rallies, and recruiting their professors and colleagues to steal information for bolstering military and technical knowledge in addition to establishing pseudo companies to help Iran’s military programs.

Members of the Islamic Students Association in Britain have met at least eight times with commanders and members of the IRGC since 2020. According to the Jewish Chronicle, the text of the commanders’ speeches has focused on anti-Semitism and anti-West sentiments. They also organized a technological conference held in Tehran in 2023 with invitees including faculty members living in the UK and people who are involved in tech companies in Iran, mostly working for the IRGC. 

History has shown that any member of a branch in the coalition of Islamic students associations who criticizes the government faces certain arrest on returning to Iran. An example is Saeed Razavi Faqih, a reformist, who was arrested after entering Iran in 1992 and sentenced to five years in prison and 148 lashes.

Later, they added another 3.5 years to his sentence in prison. Razavi Faqih, who was elected as the general secretary of this coalition, revealed that the associations receive money for their expenses from Khamenei's office through the leader's representatives in Europe. After 1992, reformists were purged from these associations.

Every few years, the members of these associations are invited to Iran, paid for by the government, to meet with Khamenei, groomed for eventually joining the government ranks. The last such meeting was on January 2, 2023, at the height of the student repression during the protests of the Women, Life, Freedom movement. Even amidst mass oppression of students in Iran, the associations still firmly aligned with the regime in Tehran.

Until the beginning of the1990s, members of these associations were mainly related to Shia clerics who were sent to Europe by government propaganda organizations for religious programs such as Muharram mourning and Ramadan ceremonies. In recent years, the connection between the members of these associations has reached the level of continuous communication with the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The overall path to support a more military-security based regime rather than a religious or hierocratic one is well underway. Khamenei has been successful in transforming the hardcore power of the regime into the hands of a small group of IRGC commanders and sideline the religious establishment and as each year's budget shows, that priority only strengthens year by year.

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