In Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America (Lexington Books, 2014) authors and global security experts Joseph Humire and Ilan Berman elaborate on Kelly’s position with a collection of essays that provides an alarming look at Iran’s penetration of Latin America. That activity began in 1979 as part of Iran’s overall strategy to seek global power and develop nuclear weapons. Latin American experts featured in this revealing volume detail how Iran’s infiltration of Latin America has been pursued under the cover of commercial activities and cultural exchanges and has been aided by an alliance and shared militancy with the Latin American Left. The experts maintain that, over more than three decades, Iran has been able to forge strong economic, political, and strategic links to the region.
As the authors explain, Iran began its strategic infiltration of Latin America in 1982. International proxy groups exported Muslim revolutionary ideas using a global network of embassies and mosques under the cover of legitimate commerce and diplomatic, cultural, and religious associations. In this way, the Islamic regime concealed its intelligence activities, claimed diplomatic immunity and gained access to backdoor channels and local governments. Iran’s operatives traveled throughout the region unifying and radicalizing Islamic communities and recruiting, proselytizing and indoctrinating young Latin Americans.
Editor Joseph Humire recounts that in 1983 the regime sent an emissary, Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian cleric, as a commercial attaché to set up a trade agreement with Argentina, ostensibly to supply halal-certified meat to the Islamic Republic. Rabbani, who in 1994 would become the primary architect of a terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, fostered alliances with local Shiite Muslims, as well as radical activists who wanted to shift power away from democratic alliances and U.S. influence. Trade with Iran helped these activists buy political patronage to advance authoritarian rule and enabled them to funnel mass social spending into their countries and influence elections. As Islamic terrorist entities such as Iran’s proxy, Hizb’allah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) moved into the region, they joined with local radical groups such as FARC and Shining Path in their anti-Americanism and hatred of Jews and Israel.
The authors explore how, with a large Muslim population in place spewing hatred toward Israel, attention focused on the largest Jewish population in South America, the 230,000 Jews in Argentina. In 1992, a Hizb’allah-linked terrorist group claimed responsibility for bombing the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. In 1994, Hizb’allah committed the deadliest bombing in Argentine history when it bombed the AMIA Jewish community center also in Buenos Aires, killing 89 people and injuring hundreds.
The essay collection insightfully examines the role of Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chavez. After becoming president in 1999, he forged a close relationship with Iran and hailed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizb’allah, as a hero. He also demanded criminal prosecution for Israel’s leader, Ariel Sharon, and President George W. Bush for mass murder. Chavez was able to help Iran overcome the hurdles of economic sanctions and engage in both licit and illicit commercial activity, including acquisition of strategic minerals for nuclear weapons development, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Chavez filled his cabinet with Islamists and became a close partner with then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to the authors, during this period Iranian influence in Latin American countries increased significantly.
Chavez worked closely with Fidel Castro, the first leader to recognize the Islamic republic and to invite Iran to open in Havana its first Latin American embassy. Together, Chavez and Castro sponsored a socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” to establish a “new world order” in which Latin America was part of a global revolution, not unlike the one in Iran. In 2004, they founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America or ALBA.
In Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America, the authors examine how, over a decade, ALBA grew in strategic importance in Latin America and helped cause the backsliding of democratic reforms in the region. ALBA’s goal was to create a Latin American coalition under Venezuelan and Cuban rule using non-state actors and transnational organized crime to bring about a post-American world. In 2010, Iran and Syria were admitted to the organization as observer states. Chavez worked with Iran and Hizb’allah to train his military in asymmetric warfare, the use of insurgency forces against established armies. Iran financed an ALBA military training school in Bolivia, as well as Hizb’allah training centers in other countries. Hizb’allah became heavily involved in drug trafficking and money laundering in the tri-border area of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. It made millions of dollars, sending cocaine from Mexico and Columbia to the Middle East and Europe. Hizb’allah used its presence in Latin America to raise money for its global operations from the Lebanese and Syrian diasporas and to recruit, indoctrinate and proselytize among the Latin American population.
Iran accrued great benefit from its relationship with the ALBA nations. Diplomatically, they stood against sanctions on Iran and tried to subvert any attempts to isolate the Islamic republic. They provided Iran with a media platform in the region and supported Iran’s rejection of nuclear weapons scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Additionally, through ALBA, Iran skirted international sanctions and evaded financial authorities by launching front companies, laundering money and injecting cash into the financial systems of ALBA countries for lucrative, commercial, and criminal enterprises.
Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America does a good job of providing an overall picture of Iran’s infiltration of South and Central America and the Caribbean. It also raises the question of what the future holds for the region. Since the death of Chavez and the economic decline in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, the trajectory of Iran-Latin America relations has shifted. Iran retains commercial interests in many countries in the area and is working to strengthen its political and economic ties. It continues to maintain its innocence in the AMIA bombing, despite substantial evidence to the contrary and heightened negative publicity from the suspicious death of chief prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, in January 2015. Many Latin American countries are wary of Iran’s influence, regional intelligence gathering and its status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Donald Trump’s election may signal a game change in the region. Trump has emphatically and repeatedly stated his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal which calls up possible reimposition of sanctions. Similarly, a ruling by Columbia’s Constitutional Court to allow expedited congressional approval for a peace accord with the Hizb’allah-allied terrorist group, FARC, could limit the previously fertile ground for Islamic terrorism in South America. Additionally, the presence of increasingly Euro-friendly regimes in Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, could constitute welcome impediments to Iran’s continued hold on power in the region. Finally, and most optimistically, with retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly as the nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, Iran’s use of Latin America as a nexus for terrorist operations could be dramatically curtailed, if not eliminated outright.