By Joseph M. Humire
January 28, 2022
When two Iranian warships sailed around the southern tip of Africa in early June 2021, on a possible voyage to Venezuela, alarm bells rang across Latin America and the Caribbean. What once seemed impossible seemed inevitable as regional intelligence officials raced to determine the implications of Iranian navy vessels in Caribbean waters.
After weeks of speculation, in July the Iranian warships IRINS Makran and IRINS Sahand changed course and sailed north across the English Channel into the Baltic Sea en route to Russia. This close call invites an assessment of Iran’s intrusion into Latin America. Fortunately, analysts have a substantial amount of empirical evidence to draw on after nearly 40 years of Iran’s prolonged presence in the region. This presence has established a modus operandi of Iran’s regional activities which, when analyzed, illustrates a multidimensional and multiphase effort that I have called Iran’s penetration pattern.
First phase: indoctrination
At the strategic level, this penetration implies a gradual transition from an informal to a formal presence, while simultaneously and systematically developing its military activity. During the 1980s, Iran initiated this strategy through a clandestine presence in a handful of Latin American countries under the cover of commercial and cultural exchanges. This cultural and religious penetration has allowed Iran, as well as Hezbollah, to integrate into the small but relevant Shia Islamic populations in the targeted countries. More importantly, he established an infrastructure through which Iran could insert spies and other subversive actors into the region, agents who in the years that followed built intelligence networks throughout the region. . This phase can be seen as an indoctrination stage for Iran’s presence in Latin America, a phase in which Tehran focused on understanding political factors, local populations, indigenous societies and trends dominant socio-economic and demographic factors to find the best approach to influence Latin America towards the Iranian revolution.
At the turn of the century, the rise of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc led to a metamorphosis of Iran’s covert presence into a more formal diplomatic and economic presence, the regime Iranian having more than doubled its embassies in the Latin language. America and establishing lines of credit with half a dozen countries in the region. This official presence increased the informal network of mosques and Islamic charities supported by Iran, establishing a command and control structure throughout Latin America managed by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) and its clerical army. , the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
For Tehran, its best approach to Latin America has been to focus on the social aspects of the Iranian revolution, describing it as a movement to protect natural resources from Western powers, referring to historical grievances against the Anglo- Iranian Oil Company and later British Petroleum in Iran. This approach has opened doors in many Latin American countries whose nascent communist movements and indigenous societies have a long history of conflict over natural resources with Western multinationals. As a result, in 2015, then Commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), US Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran had established more than 80 cultural centers Shia Islam in Latin America.
Alberto Nisman, the late special prosecutor for the 1994 terrorist attack at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA, in Spanish) in Buenos Aires, once described these Iranian-backed Shiite Islamic centers as “antennas.” for the Iranian revolution. Today, they are more like relay antennas because they transmit and receive a multitude of strategic messages in favor of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and its “axis of resistance”, while broadcasting disinformation against the United States, Israel and their regional allies. .
Then SOUTHCOM commander, US Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, testified in 2021 that “Tehran maintains a channel in Spanish [HispanTV] which reaches 17 countries in the region. HispanTV started in 2010, initially using the existing infrastructure of Venezuelan state-owned regional media, TeleSUR. A recent study by national security scholar Douglas Farah published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, identifies two typologies used by Iran’s disinformation efforts in Latin America. The first focuses on “building goodwill, sympathy, cultural affinity and finding common ground”, while the second “expresses the need for a radical change in the world order, the United States. United being the main obstacle to this change”.
Phase two: assimilation
On December 8, 2020, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on a large academic network based in the Shia holy city of Qom, Iran, alleging it was involved in the recruitment of Afghan students and Pakistanis to fight in Syria. civil war. The main sanctioned entity, Al-Mustafa International University, has also educated thousands of Latin Americans since it began operations in 2007.
Many graduates of Iranian indoctrination programs at Al-Mustafa International University have recently begun to gain political influence in Latin America, including Colombia, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, Chile and Mexico. For example, a leader of the Shia Islamic center called Inkarrislam in Peru has repeatedly run for local political office in Apurimac, a mineral-dense region in the south-central part of the country.
Once Iran’s informal presence in Latin America has enough influence, it is used to bolster its formal diplomatic presence to gain better access to the country’s political and economic elites. Iran leverages this influence to establish shell companies that serve as conduits for Iran’s secret missile and nuclear programs. This process is most evident in Venezuela, where Iran has leveraged its relationship with the late Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro to erect a military-industrial complex that combines Iran’s growing commercial presence with dual-use military activity. growing under the control of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force.
Apart from Venezuela, this second phase of assimilation into the culture, institutions and political and economic elites of a host country has had varying success in Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, where Iran enjoys privileged status as an observer member of the ALBA bloc. . But it is in Bolivia that Iran has arguably made the most gains in Latin America, as it has successfully gone through the various stages of strategic penetration alongside the proceso de cambio (promises of social, cultural, economic and political changes ) of the Evo Morales. diet.
Bolivia: privileged partner of Iran
An indigenous activist turned socialist political leader, Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005 and ruled the country for 14 years until his resignation in 2019, after allegations of massive electoral fraud. At that time, Iran went from having a negligible presence in Bolivia to becoming one of the main allies of President Morales and the ruling political party, MAS. Opening a new embassy in 2008, in the following years Iran signed several bilateral agreements with Bolivia in the fields of hydrocarbons, agriculture, health, afforestation, culture, mining, space, security and nanotechnology.
The previous year, in 2007, Iran had begun recruiting and indoctrinating some Bolivian nationals through its outreach programs at Al Mustafa International University. These recruits paved the way for Iran to expand its cultural reach in arts, television, and sports in Bolivia, leading to a greater Iranian presence in the Andean nation. A controversial 2011 visit to Bolivia by former Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi shed light on the blossoming relations between Tehran and La Paz. Vahidi, who has an Interpol red notice for his role in the 1994 AMIA bombing, is Iran’s new interior minister in President Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet. Then in 2016, and again in 2019, several high-level visits to Bolivia by then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif cemented the close ties. During one of his visits, Zarif was decorated with the Order of the Condor of the Andes, a state medal awarded to foreign nationals for outstanding merit to Bolivia.
Before Iran and Bolivia began to establish strong bilateral relations, Venezuela signed a military agreement in 2006 with the Morales government to build joint military bases in the inland river port city of Puerto Quijarro, along the river Parana, and Riberalta, both near the border with Brazil. Iran joined this military agreement to extend the tentacles of the IRGC, well anchored in Venezuela, to Bolivia. Iranian diplomat Hojatollah Soltani, who is the architect of the Tehran-Caracas-La Paz triangle, served in La Paz from 2008 to 2010 and is now Tehran’s ambassador to Caracas.
Phase three: conflict?
Some analysts believed Chávez’s death would bring an abrupt end to Iran’s incursion into Latin America. Eight years later, that has not happened as Iran has embarked on a systematic, long-term approach to establishing and maintaining a strategic presence in Latin America.
The old adage, “intelligence drives operations,” indicates that intelligence operations, by their nature, provide support to decision makers planning particular policies and actions. In this context, it is useful to note that Iran’s activities in Latin America throughout the first two phases described in this article largely focused on aggressive diplomacy and intelligence gathering and analysis. However, as elsewhere, this preparation is ultimately intended to drive operations in the future.
The close call with two Iranian warships entering the South Atlantic in the summer of 2021 is a not-so-subtle sign that the Islamic Republic sees Latin America as an important strategic arena, and worthy of advanced military operations. Iran has long been appalled by its geographic disadvantage in its perceived conflict with the United States. The day is approaching when Iran will have diminished this disadvantage to become a more formidable threat in the Western Hemisphere.