Historically, Latin America’s relations with Iran have been nearly nonexistent. But in recent years, this region has become a priority for Iran in which to expand its influence and sphere of action. Such was confirmed by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in late 2021, following a meeting in Tehran with then Venezuelan Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia.
Two years later, in June 2023, Raisi traveled to Latin America for the first time since taking office to strengthen ties with countries in the region. However, his visit was limited to three stops: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
Yet Iran’s efforts to penetrate the region go beyond the scope of diplomatic relations. According to the study Propaganda, Narratives and Influence in Latin America: Iran, Hezbollah and Al-Tajammu, by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) of Israel’s Reichman University, Iran has the support of terrorist organizations and pro-Iranian groups to expand its ideological influence in Latin America.
The study highlights that the terrorist group Hezbollah has been responsible for fundraising, propaganda, and smuggling operations. In addition, the report says, other pro-Iranian organizations such as Al-Tajammu are reportedly playing a notable role in expanding Iranian influence in the region through the internet, websites, and other social media platforms.
Iran’s reach stands out as “large-scale psychological warfare using social networks, satellites, and Spanish-language media, which promote [Iranian] interests to attack the West and Latin America,” Jorge Serrano, a member of the team of advisors to the Peruvian Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo in September 2022. “VEVAK [Iran’s National Ministry of Intelligence and Security] is behind this.”
Among the terrorist groups supporting Iran in the region, Unit 840 of the Quds Force, one of the five branches of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also calls for attention.
Hezbollah’s media influence
Hezbollah has a very powerful and internationally influential media conglomerate and propagandistic deployment, according to the study Hezbollah’s Media Apparatus by Spain-based think tank International Observatory on Terrorism Studies (OIET).
Its main propaganda tool is its television station, Al-Manar, from which it broadcasts the terrorist group’s activities, as well as promotes the group’s ideology and values of the Iranian Islamic revolution, the report indicated. All of the terrorist group’s media outlets target Lebanese as well as international audiences, broadcasting in different languages, including Spanish. According to the report, this is a fundamental element for the expansion and strengthening of its psychological warfare and information manipulation in the region.
Hezbollah also has an important propaganda springboard through other media channels such as HispanTV, which according to the report is the Iranian media through which Hezbollah has greater influence in the region. The study also highlights Al Mayadeen, a pro-Hezbollah media operating in Latin America and whose director, Wafica Ibrahim, collaborates with TeleSur, the television network linked to the Venezuelan regime, and with Cubavisión Internacional and Canal Caribe of the Cuban regime, the OIET reports indicated.
Hezbollah’s media modus operandis
To better understand Iran’s influence via social networks and other media platforms, the ICT presented two case studies that illustrate the narrative they use to exert influence.
The first case is the Tertulias en Cuarentena channel on YouTube, which two Spanish members of the Internationalist Anti-Imperialist Front (FAI) created. The objective behind the content broadcasted is to penetrate Latin American screens, through interviews conducted by other Iran-influenced media such as Hispan TV, TeleSur, RT, and Al Mayadeen, and to create political content that supports the ideological currents of countries such as Venezuela and Cuba.
The other case that ICT analyzed is the digital platform Resumen Latinoamérica (RL). This web page created in Argentina seeks to be “the other face of the news of America and the Third World.” The objective of the content is to misinform and create media terrorism. Its narrative attacks those who consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and just like Tertulias en Cuarentena, uses Iranian media such as Al Mayadeen, Hispan TV, and Al Manar as sources, and even replicates information broadcast by Tertulias en Cuarentena.
“They encourage these leftist currents, knowing that Latin America is hard hit by the economic and social crisis,” Serrano said. “They take advantage of this scenario and exacerbate the resentment of the marginalized or displaced population against the system.”
Iran, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian groups “will continue to create more channels on YouTube and social networks to expand that psychological warfare in Latin America and Spain,” he added. “They could produce in the following months or years terrorist attacks in the countries where they see that there is a scenario of greater vulnerability to perpetrate them.”
Unit 840 of the Quds Force
Unit 840 is a secret division of the IRGC led by the Quds Force, the executing arm of all acts of international terrorism designed and financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The unit is responsible for planning and establishing the terrorist infrastructure outside of Iran and does so through the use of local criminals to execute terrorist acts globally and kill adversaries abroad. The regime similarly strengthens its attacks against overseas unidentified officials in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
Since 2020, Iran has moved from categorizing and tracking targets for possible attack in the event of escalating pressures between the West and Iran, to launching plans, including the attempted assassination of Israeli businessmen in Colombia.
Unit 840’s modus operandis
Iran’s logistical connections include the movement of materials and people by exploiting known variables and vulnerabilities, likely similar to migration flow patterns used in Latin America.
An example of how Unit 840 operates is the case of the failed assassination of two Israeli businessmen in Colombia in mid-2021, Argentine news site Infobae reported. The operation was planned with local manpower, and was coordinated by Rahmat Asadi, an Iranian terrorist who did global intelligence posing as a paintball player. The plan, according to Infobae, was assigned to two Colombian hitmen who, under Asadi’s direct instructions, did the intelligence work and hired members of a local gang to execute the victims. The coordinated efforts of the Colombian government and Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies thwarted the plan, Infobae reported.
The time has come to be vigilant in highlighting the threats and ensuring the safety of Latin America’s intrinsic citizens and visitors. Iran, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian groups will continue to develop their influence narrative through social media, experts say. Iran will continue to exploit vulnerabilities in flow patterns to move criminal actors and materials seeking passage in Latin America to the southern border of the United States.
Iran, and groups such as the Quds Force’s Unit 840, will continue to take advantage of money laundering in the tri-border area for terrorist purposes designed and funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The susceptibility and use of migrant transient routes by nefarious actors moving personnel and materials throughout the region for terrorist purposes is of concern and an increased focus on these routes must take center stage.