Training tomorrow’s revolutionary elites at Iran’s theological seminaries
The story of Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow is well known. Established by the government of the Soviet Union in 1960, the university offered higher education to students from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The university also functioned as a recruitment ground for the KGB, the main Soviet security agency, and was engaged in training the vanguard of the global Communist revolution.
Less known is the role of theological seminaries in Iran, in particular al-Mustafa International University (MIU) in Qom and its many offshoots, which attract thousands of students from abroad and double as recruitment grounds and training facilities for Shia revolutionary elites.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution in 1979, Islamic Republic authorities established the Non-Iranian Theological Students Supervisory Council (Showra-ye Sarparasti-ye Tollab-e Gheir-e- Irani), which, in close cooperation with the intelligence services, supervised the affairs of foreign Shia theological students in Iran. Following several organisational metamorphoses, the institution was renamed MIU in December 2007 and subjected to direct control of the supreme leader.
MIU’s charter, which formalised existing practice towards foreign theological students since 1979, defines the goal of the institution as “training theologians,” “identifying, recruiting and supporting scientific elites of the world of Islam,” “securing stipends for theological students, their wives and children in Iran and abroad” and the like.
Those conditions seem to have attracted a considerable number of foreign students to the university. MIU Director Ayatollah Alireza Arafi recently disclosed that “more than 100,000 theological students from 130 countries” are studying at the university.
Because the MIU charter allows a maximum 20% Iranian nationals among the total number of the students, approximately 80,000 of those students are not Iranian. The MIU website states that those students study under 3,500 faculty members, both Iranian and foreign nationals.
MIU campuses in Qom host more than 20,000 of the university’s students; the rest are scattered around Iran and 60 different countries across the globe. In the Persian language source material, there is reference to Sunni Muslim alumni from Nigeria and other African countries.
However, there is every reason to believe MIU’s curriculum is not limited to the scientific study of religion but includes military training.
On July 29, 2015, Hojjat al-Islam Mohammad Mousavi Naji’s funeral service was in Qom. An MIU graduate, Naji was seconded to the Iraqi Badr Corps and was killed in combat in Baiji, Iraq. On April 28, 2016, Arafi visited the families of leading Shia Afghan fighters killed in combat in Syria, including Ali-Reza Tavasoli, Fatemiyoun Division chief commander, and Reza Bakhshi, Tavasoli’s second in command. Both men were MIU graduates. Most Shia Pakistanis of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade killed in combat in Syria were MIU graduates.
There are indications of the Islamic Republic security agencies imposing a degree of compartmentalisation among different nationalities. Larger national student groups, such as Afghans, Bahrainis, Iraqis, Lebanese and Pakistanis, seem to have their own seminary within the MIU. Even their rallies or religious ceremonies are separate from each other to minimise contact between the different nationalities.
Mixing nationalities seems to take place as the foreign students reach higher educational levels and are identified as potential leaders (either religious, political, military or administrative) of their home constituencies.
It is through this approach that the Islamic Republic is trying to cultivate the next generation of Hassan Nasrallahs, the Shia revolutionary elites of tomorrow.