More cross-border campuses in the Arab states

In a move aimed at easing Western sanctions and its economic isolation, along with promoting higher education development and regional cooperation, Iran is continuing to establish more branch campuses of its universities across the Arab states.

Earlier this month, a senior official in Iran’s ministry of energy said a technical university specialising in the power industry and renewable energy sources would be built in Iraq.

“Running training courses in the field of electricity, renewable energy and energy research, paving the [way] for the further presence of Iranian companies in Iraq’s power industry, and improving investment in the power sector [of Iraq], are among other provisions of the agreement,” the official said.

Last month, the Iranian government announced plans to open two new offshoots of its universities in Iraq, including a medical sciences university and a branch of the Islamic Azad University.

Iranian universities in Arab states

Iran had also established a number of branch universities in the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai campuses of Islamic Azad, the Shahid Beheshti, and the Payame Noor universities.

As well as its branch in Dubai, the private, non-profit Islamic Azad University has also expanded into other Arab states, including in Lebanon where it opened its first offshoot in Beirut in 1994.

Syria had also agreed to open an Iranian campus, the Farabi University, in the north-west Syrian port city of Latakia. According to a book by Nadia von Maltzahn called The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural diplomacy and international relations in the Middle East, Farabi University was to be launched as an international branch of Tarbiat Modares University, a wholly postgraduate Iranian university in Tehran. This was to be in conjunction with Syria’s third largest university, Tishreen University.

The Iranian-Syrian university was to have opened soon after the signing of an agreement between Iran and Syria, but the Syrian uprising that started in March 2011 seems to have affected this project. According to Syria's higher education action plan for 2012-2013, higher education projects such as Farabi were facing serious obstacles as a result of the political and security situation in the country, including limited funds.

Motive in setting up branch campuses

Meantime, Iran has unveiled plans to set up branches of its universities in other Arab states, including the Union of the Comoros. A member of the African Union, Comoros is a sovereign archipelago island nation in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa – and the only member of the Arab League entirely within the Southern Hemisphere.

International reports suggest the educational motives behind these projects include providing facilities for Iranians living abroad to complete their studies and conduct research related to their fields of interest.

For example, Iranians have migrated to the UAE, and especially to Dubai, in large numbers. In fact, they now exceed 10% of the total population – making Dubai home to the world's second largest Iranian diaspora community.

But Iran is also using its universities as a tool to tackle its political problems, including a current dispute with the UAE over three islands it occupies, as well as the international economic sanctions and isolation resulting from problems related to its nuclear programme.

A May 2012 report, Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan, published by two US right-wing think-tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, noted that since 2008, Iran had continued to pursue a coordinated “soft-power strategy” throughout its sphere of influence using several tools including universities to promote its agenda.