While Iran’s military involvement in regional conflicts and support for militant groups often make headlines, Tehran’s sophisticated soft power strategies aimed at promoting the Islamic Republic’s ideological and political goals in the region are largely overlooked. The establishment of Islamic Azad Universities in major Syrian and Iraqi cities and the expansion of its main branch in Lebanon is one example of how Tehran uses soft power tools to expand its sphere of influence across the region. Moreover, Iran’s educational, cultural and charitable organizations abroad also complement the country’s hard power strategies and at times provide a civilian cover for the Revolutionary Guards operatives to carry out subversive activities at the expense of regional stability.

New branches in Syria and Iraq

On Tuesday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accepted a proposal from Iran’s Islamic Azad University to open a branch in the war-torn Arab country. “I wrote in a letter to Bashar al-Assad that the Azad University is ready to establish a branch [in Syria] and he issued an order for the establishment of the Islamic Azad University in all Syrian cities,” Velayati, who is the head of the Founding Council and Board of Trustees of the university, revealed.   

The former foreign minister added that last week he also discussed the opening of Islamic Azad University branches in different Iraqi cities with Humam Hamoudi, Iraq’s first deputy parliament speaker. “The head of the Iraq’s Islamic Supreme Council expressed interest in the establishment of the Islamic Azad University in all Iraqi cities. And according to an agreement that was signed before with Mr. [Ammar] Hakim [Hamoudi’s predecessor and prominent Iraqi politician and cleric], we will open the Islamic Azad University’s branches in Karbala, Najaf, Baghdad, Basra and Erbil.”  

The Islamic Azad University has already opened branches in Lebanon. But Velayati noted that the size and scope of the university in Lebanon will be expanded. He said he had discussed the issue with Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who acquired the permit for the expansion plan from Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education. The Islamic Azad University also has branches in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Soft power influence

The expansion of the Islamic Azad University branches abroad is part of Iran’s sophisticated soft power strategy that promotes the Islamic Republic’s ideological and political goals. During his speech yesterday, Velayati stressed that Iran’s soft power influence is helping the “expansion of Islam” in different parts of the world, including in China, India and the Arab world – particularly focusing on Shiite Islam.

Such soft power tools also complement Iran’s hard power strategies as Tehran uses educational, charitable and cultural organizations to indoctrinate young Shiites in the region and potentially recruit them for Iran’s regional struggle for power and dominance.

During his speech last July about the need for Islamic Azad University’s branches in Arab countries, Velayati emphasized that the new university branches will help more Iraqi and Lebanese youth to acquire higher education and they will also train the next generation of “resistance” – a term Iranian leaders use for their regional proxies. He also stressed that the Basij Organization – a branch of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) – should have an “all-encompassing presence in Azad University’s cultural, ideological and social activities.” Addressing Basij officials and student leaders at the “Den of Espionage” – the former U.S. embassy in Tehran before 1979 Islamic Revolution – Velayati called for “reviving Islamic culture” at the university. “The Student Basij is a pillar of universities and student campuses,” he said, adding that “the cultural department of Azad University will be a headquarters of Basij because we believe that Basij is the most capable organization in the cultural and ideological fields.”

Civilian cover for IRGC

Moreover, Iranian charity and cultural organizations often provide a civilian cover for IRGC and its secretive Quds Force operatives to carry out subversive activities at the expense of regional stability. Iran’s cultural center in Lebanon, for example, works in close partnership with Hezbollah’s cultural department to implement joint projects and raise funds for Hezbollah inside Iran. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, ostensibly a charity organization, functions to promote Tehran’s ideological and political goals in the region and helps the IRGC’s efforts from Central and South Asia to the Middle East and beyond.

Since the 1979 revolution, Tehran has established numerous cultural and religious centers in many regional countries to expand its soft power influence and complement its hard power activities as well. In Lebanon, for example, Iran established the Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Beirut in 1987 to elevate Hezbollah’s popularity and depict Iran as the “Vatican of Shiism among Lebanese people.” The center supervises a chain of Iranian-funded schools, universities and religious seminaries mostly in Shiite-dominated areas. It also coordinates with Iranian state media to promote Tehran’s propaganda in Lebanon.

It is worth mentioning that Velyati has played an influential role in Iran’s foreign policy for decades. He served for more than a decade as Iran’s foreign minister and currently holds a seat at the country’s Expediency Discernment Council. He is also a member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and heads the Center for Strategic Research – two organizations that plays a role in exporting Iran’s ideological agenda abroad. He has about 20 more official positions in different state institutions.

Islamic Azad University

Islamic Azad University was inaugurated by Islamic Republic’s founder Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1982, and it hosts at least one million students in its more than 300 branches inside and outside Iran. In Lebanon, the university has already established its branches in Beirut and al-Nabatieh cities. Its Afghanistan branch is in western Kabul, home to sizable Shiite Hazara community. The university in Kabul is also located in close proximity to another Iranian-funded university, Khatam al-Nabayin University. While the latter is established and run by an Afghan Shiite leader, Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, its instructors are trained in Iran and its library is filled with Tehran-supplied books. As in Afghanistan, the destruction of universities and educational centers in Iraq and particularly in Syria provides a fitting time for Tehran to open its universities in the two Arab countries. Ironically, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and Supreme National Security Council have in the past barred Iraqi citizens from enrolling in Azad University branches inside Iran.

While the United States and its allies closely monitor and study Iran’s hard power regional strategies, they cannot effectively counter Tehran’s growing influence in the region without understanding the Islamic Republic’s soft power strategies that supplement Iran’s broader foreign policy agenda.

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