Iran's promotion of its brand of Shi'ite Islam across the Middle East has been obvious for decades, but such activities in Europe largely managed to fly under the radar.
But its Balkans-centered efforts have come under scrutiny in recent years, leading to an Iranian cleric in Kosovo being charged with financing terrorism and money laundering through a nominally nongovernmental organization he operates. Kosovar authorities claim Hasan Azari Bejandi, charged on July 26, ran five Shi'ite organizations with links to Tehran.
Bejandi is the most high-profile Iranian cleric to be accused in the predominantly Muslim country, potentially cutting off a rare avenue of influence for Tehran in Europe, where charities believed to be tied to Iran also operate in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The charges against Bejandi come amid a recent crackdown by authorities on foreign-funded Islamic organizations, which the government blames for the radicalization of Kosovar youths and the high numbers of people who have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Hasan Azari Bejandi
But Tehran is heavily involved in the fight against Islamic State (IS), and it is unclear what Bejandi's alleged involvement in terrorism might be, particularly considering that terrorism in Kosovo is usually linked to IS.
Iranian charities launched their activities in Kosovo soon after the war ended in 1999. The organizations built schools and mosques, but also brought with them a conservative brand of Shi'ite Islam. The groups also spread anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda, and are seen to be tied to Tehran's long-standing effort to export its Islamic Revolution.
"Iran's activities in Kosovo were more or less underground," says Visar Duriqi, an investigative journalist for Kosovo's Gazeta Express news website. "Their activities didn't cause too much attention. But that changed when authorities found out that the NGOs were hiding their sources of income and the purposes of their spending."
Bejandi was the head of the Qur'an Foundation of Kosova, an alleged umbrella group for five Shi'ite organizations operating in Kosovo that have been shut down in recent months. State prosecutors say Bejandi has been charged with laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeclared cash between 2005 and 2015.
Naim Rashiti, an analyst with the Balkan Policy Research Group, a Pristina-based think tank, says Iran is a relatively minor player in the competition for Islamic influence in the Balkans, where Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states dominate.
"The first NGOs established here were related to Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia," Rashiti says. "The Iranians came a little later and were fewer in number. Their pull was not as strong as [that of] the Arabs."
Many Kosovars support the government's close ties with the United States, owing to NATO's bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia that ended the Kosovo war and also Washington's support for Kosovo's independence.
Rashiti adds that Iranian NGOs in Kosovo have been under greater surveillance and monitoring by the authorities compared to other foreign organizations. "The Iranian NGOs were an additional issue because of the political connotations," he says.
Journalist Duriqi, who has spent a year investigating Iranian charities in Kosovo, says the Qur'an Foundation of Kosova is linked to Ikballe Huduti-Berisha, one of the leaders of the small Shi'ite community in southwestern Kosovo. Her daughter, Zehra Huduti, caused a stir when she announced on Iran's web-based Nasr TV during a visit to Tehran three years ago that she wanted to "fight Israel and America."
The umbrella group appears to be affiliated with the Al-Mustafa International University headed by Ayatollah Alireza Aarafi, a member of Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and a Friday Prayers leaders in the holy city of Qom. The university claims that Bejandi is its representative in Kosovo.
The university has branches in a number of countries, including in Kosovo.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studied Shi'ite theology in Qom, has written that Al-Mustafa International University is owned and run by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Al-Mustafa International University says on its website that it is the only Iranian center active in Kosovo since 2000. It is alleged by Kosovar authorities to be active under five institutions in two major cities -- the Qur'an Foundation of Kosova that was set up in Prizren in 2002; the Ibn Sina Institute for Human Sciences launched in 2012 in Pristina; the all-female NISA charity based in the capital; the Pristina-based Bregu I Diellit group; and the Ahle Beyt Institute set up in 2007 in Prizren.
Al-Mustafa International University claims on its website that it has been active in teaching the Koran and the Persian language, and has also organized conferences, events, and published religious texts.
Crackdown On Islamic Charities
Since late 2014, Kosovar authorities have closed dozens of foreign-funded charities -- mostly Saudi-backed -- in a bid to address Kosovo's radicalization problem.
The government estimates that more than 300 Kosovars have traveled to the Middle East to join Islamic militants fighting in Iraq and Syria. That makes this predominately Muslim country of under 2 million people, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, Europe's biggest contributor per capita of foot soldiers for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
Islamic charities often run schools, dormitories, and welfare programs. But they also push a hard-line agenda. The groups are accused of brainwashing youth and recruiting them for extremist causes abroad. Under a new law, Kosovo can jail citizens for up to 15 years if they participate in foreign wars.
Kosovo's authorities say around 50 homegrown jihadists have been killed in fighting in Syria and Iraq, and around 120 have returned to Kosovo. More than 100 people in Kosovo have been arrested or are under investigation for recruiting or fighting abroad on behalf of IS.
* This story has been corrected to clarify that Hasan Azari Bejandi has been charged but not arrested.
Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report