Iran’s ‘branch campuses’ reach Sub-Saharan Africa

Iranian universities are rapidly expanding their branches in both number and capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa, in a move seen by higher education experts as either enhancing academia on the continent, or attempting to extend Iranian cultural diplomacy or 'soft power' to serve Iranian political, economic, religious and cultural agendas.

The expansion policy is currently aimed at Nigeria, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Congo, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Senegal and South Africa, to build regional alliances and partnerships.

The Iranian project was outlined in a report this month, entitled “Middle Eastern Interventions in Africa: Tehran’s extensive soft power”, published by the United States-based Middle East Forum, a US think-tank that aims to promote the interests of the US and its allies in the Middle East and protect Western values from any perceived threats.

The report indicated that Africa was home to more than 1.2 billion people, nearly half of them Muslim – mostly Sunni, with 5-10% Shiite. Most of the Muslim population live in North Africa and their governments generally blocked any attempted activities by Tehran on their soil.

Iran’s increasing influence at universities

The report said that Iran, however, in expanding its soft power and influence across the continent, was now focusing on small minority Muslim communities in Sub-Saharan states, as it exported its brand of Shiite Islamism to Africa. At the same time, Iran was reshaping the continent’s politics and circumventing economic sanctions.

Universities are part of Iran’s project to employ African organisations in its long-term expansion strategy for Africa, the report added.

Another study, published in June 2018, entitled Iran’s Ideological Expansion, stated that “Iran views education as a core component of its mission to propagate Khomeinist and anti-Western ideology at home and abroad and [it] has accordingly invested heavily in international university endeavours.”

The Middle East Forum report further indicated that Al-Mustafa International University, a religious institution that aimed to train Muslim scholars and disseminate Iran’s ideology through the Islamic world, had branches in more than 60 countries around the world, including some in 17 Sub-Saharan African states. This included their administration of more than 100 schools and Islamic centres in 30 African countries.

3,000 African students at Iranian branches

Al-Mustafa International University’s most important African sites were in Nigeria, whose population included several million Shiite Muslims, and Uganda and Sierra Leone, where it administered the Al-Mustafa Islamic College Uganda and the International Institute of Islamic Studies respectively.

Currently, about 3,000 African students are studying at Al-Mustafa branches on the continent and 2,000 are enrolled on courses in Iran and are sent as missionaries to their native countries several times a year.

According to the report, Iran’s Ideological Expansion, the Islamic Azad University has a student body of 1.62 million and is ranked as the world’s fourth largest university in terms of enrolment. The Islamic Azad University has international branches and offices at local universities in several countries, including Tanzania.

Further, it was reported in February in Nigeria’s Daily Post that Iran would set up more university branches in Nigeria.

Branches to be established in the Comoros

Another report, by the Islamic Republic News Agency, revealed plans to establish branches of Iran’s Technical and Vocational University not only in Senegal but in other African countries.

In addition, according to a Mehr News Agency story, several Iranian universities – Elmi Karbordi, the University of Applied Science and Technology and Payame Noor University, which specialise in distance education and have about 30 provincial centres and campuses in Iran – plan to set up branches in East Africa’s Comoros archipelago.

Higher education experts expressed a mixed response to the expansion scheme.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor of global thought and comparative philosophies, and chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, United Kingdom, told University World News: “Iranian universities have cooperation agreements all over the world including with academic institutions in the United Kingdom and the European Union and so far there have not been any major problems.”

He added that it was a “welcome development to exchange ideas within the context of university education. In principle, I don’t think it a problem that any country establishes branches elsewhere if it is ensured that these universities adhere to scholarly standards.”

Europe offices

Adib-Moghaddam pointed out that the Islamic Azad University had already established offices in Europe, including Italy, France, Finland, Austria and Germany, and had a branch campus in the UK, the Azad University in Oxford, in order to – according to its website – “support its international higher education cooperation with European universities and research centres”.

He added that “cultural dialogues between countries require exchanges of ideas, so I am generally supportive of any cooperation in that regard”.

Pirouz Azadi, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American professor, criticised Iran’s plans in Africa, however, telling University World News that Iran should “curtail all its costly ideological activities beyond its borders, including its influence on higher education systems on the Sub-Saharan African continent”, as it needed to examine its domestic socio-economic and political failures before attempting to expand its influence outside its borders.

Within the context of 42% of jobless Iranian people holding university degrees and only 24% of jobholders being university graduates, according to a recent report, Azadi said that Iran needed to devise “a last resort reformed policy of making sovereignty, security, dignity and sustainability of the 80-million nation the highest priority … In such context, exploiting higher education or religious forums as a means of soft influencing is not a priority for Iran.”

Strongest tools

He further pointed out that “the use of soft power through the higher education system has become, as evidenced by the proliferation of American or British universities, the strongest socio-cultural, economic and political tools post-World War II”.

However, UNESCO Science Prize laureate Atta-ur-Rahman, a former coordinator general of the Ministerial Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57-country Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, told University World News: “We in the Muslim world must build bridges across nations so that the divide that foreign powers created between us can be eliminated. One excellent way to do this is through scientific cooperation … through establishing of institutional linkages, while taking care that this is done to promote brotherhood and not to extend our political influence.”

The director of the University of Burundi's Doctoral School, Juma Shabani – also a former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa – told University World News: “In recent years, African countries have made a strong commitment to revisiting their curricula in order to align them to the needs of the world of work and therefore to promote youth employability. In this perspective, programmes that do not meet this requirement should simply not be accredited.”