Iran Focus: Qom, May 31 – Iranian officials are focusing on foreign students studying at seminaries in the Shiite holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, as vessels to help further the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy agenda, especially advancing its fundamentalist influence in Muslim countries, Iran Focus has learnt.
Qom, May 31 – Iranian officials are focusing on foreign students studying at seminaries in the Shiite holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, as vessels to help further the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy agenda, especially advancing its fundamentalist influence in Muslim countries, Iran Focus has learnt.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Palestine are three countries which have been identified in recent comments for possible expansion of Iran’s influence.
Among the more than 100,000 foreign nationals presently living in Qom, thousands attend a university set up exclusively for non-Iranian nationals, called Jame’at ol-Mostafa Al-Alamiya, (Al-Mustafa International University).
The origins of the University go back to 1980, when the first institute for recruiting non-Iranian clerics, “The Council for Supervising non-Iranian Clerics” was established in Qom in 1980. The Council expanded to become the “International Centre for Islamic Studies” in 1994 and was reorganised into Jame’at ol-Mostafa Al-Alamiya after merging with the “Organisation of Foreign Students Religious Seminaries” in 2007. The University has so far accepted 34,000 students and clerics from 108 countries, according to the latest data available that Iran Focus has obtained. About 16,000 have successfully completed their studies and graduated.
The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sponsored a review in which the students were identified as a force with great potential, particularly to aid foreign diplomacy. Accordingly, authorities plan to use them more actively in a growing number of fields.
On 7 December, the Foreign Ministry formally opened a representative office in Qom, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and two of his deputies in attendance.
Mottaki described the most important objectives of the office as: providing information to religious leaders at the seminary about foreign policy; facilitating consulate matters for foreign nationals, especially clerics and students at Jame’at ol-Mostafa, helping the local economy with foreign investments, exchange of trade delegations, encouraging religious tourism and exporting local products; and launching research with the aid of seminary experts into areas critical to the Foreign Ministry, especially in the fields of Islamic diplomacy and Islamic human rights.
Hamid Makarem, the director of the ministry’s office in Qom, has voiced satisfaction over his contacts with potentially useful students, adding that the number of referrals has exceeded the office’s capacity to respond.
Makarem met 1 February with Ayatollah Mohammad-Javad Alavi, a religious leader in Qom, who said: “If we can create a non-government organisation with the backing of religious leaders and experts at the seminary, which would then pursue the idea of increasing contacts with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, this would be most effective. Politics is fraught with ebbs and flows, and that is why we need a stable place which will not be subject to such fluctuations.”
On April 1, Makarem met with another religious leader, Ayatollah Morteza Moqtada’i, who voiced similar feelings.
“I have, for a long time, believed that the seminary’s international profile must be raised and that its capacities should be utilised better at the international level,” Moqtada’i was quoted as saying by a source familiar with the discussion.
“As such, we recently managed to establish the seminary’s international bureau and appointed Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Zamani, our former cultural liaison in Egypt, as its director. The cooperation of this bureau with the Foreign Ministry’s representative office in Qom will be very fruitful and essential,” Moqtada’i said.
He also pointed to the launching of professional courses at the seminary in disseminating ideas and propaganda abroad, saying, “We are currently training dozens of people who are proficient in various languages and can be messengers we can send abroad. We hope to benefit from the views and considerations of the Foreign Ministry in the field of sending delegations to other countries.”
Makarem sent a letter on 28 March to a number of clerics in the city, including Grand Ayatollahs Naser Makarem Shirazi, Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, Jafar Sobhani, Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad-Ali Alavi Hosseini Gorgani, asking them to take a stance on developments in Palestine. He asked them to speak out against construction of a synagogue, said to be the largest in the world, “beside the Al-Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem.
It is believed that he may be referring to restoration of the Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. The synagogue, which is about a quarter mile from the mosque, was destroyed by Jordanian forces in the 1948 war with Israel. Some Palestinians have condemned the reopening of the synagogue, saying it is a prelude to razing Islamic holy sites, Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, on top of the Temple Mount in preparations for a Third Temple there, a repetitive suspicion among Muslims over the years.