Experts warn that Iran is seeking to expand its influence in Latin America with illicit activities, disinformation, hate speech, and even maybe new terrorist attacks. A warning sign occurred in June, when a 747 cargo plane registered to the Venezuelan airline Emtrasur was detained at Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires. The aircraft, with 14 Venezuelan and five Iranian crew members on board, aroused all kinds of suspicions for being denied entry to Uruguay, its unusual crew, and its links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“The plane’s mixed Iranian-Venezuelan crewmen included IRGC officials,” Sharon Nazarian, vice president for International Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a U.S.-based Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), told Diálogo in early July. “In the run up to the 28th anniversary of the AMIA Jewish community center bombing [July 18, 1994] that left 85 dead, this cargo plane’s suspicious Latin American flights could very well be attempts to plot yet another terrorist attack.” she said.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institution based in Washington, D.C., noted that the crew included Gholamreza Ghasemi, senior member of the IRGC, and a board member, shareholder, and manager of the Iranian airline sanctioned by the U.S. for transporting weapons and fighters, Fars Air Qeshm.
“What was a senior IRGC official doing posing as a cargo aircraft captain up and down Latin America?” asked Ottolenghi in an early July piece for the U.S. magazine The Dispatch. “To send a company senior executive around the world to deliver cargo is a bit like having Jeff Bezos drive Amazon Prime delivery trucks. It makes no sense. And Ghasemi is not the only crew member to raise eyebrows,” he added.
For Nazarian, an Iranian immigrant whose family was forced to flee during the Islamic Revolution, Tehran has been active in Latin America for more than three decades and has eluded justice. “The visit of Mohsen Rezai [who was the IRGC commander at the time of the AMIA bombing] to Nicaragua earlier this year shows that the masterminds who are under Interpol Red Notices can still travel freely in Latin America and can even be received with the highest dignitary status,” Nazarian said.
On the occasion, the Argentine government condemned Rezai’s visit to Nicaragua. “The Argentine Republic expresses its most energetic condemnation of the presence of Mohsen Rezai at the inauguration ceremony” of Daniel Ortega, the Foreign Ministry said in a January 11 statement.
The cozy relationship that dictators “of States that violate human rights, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, have with Iran is an affront to the memory of the victims of those two terrorist attacks [on the Israeli Embassy and AMIA],” Nazarian said.
Flights of a political nature
According to Argentine aviation media Aviacionline, the aircraft, until recently owned by Iran’s sanctioned airline Mahan Air, which operates Fars Air Qeshm, was transferred to Conviasa subsidiary Emtrasur in November 2021. However, an Argentine commercial aviation expert presented evidence that Mahan had leased, not sold, the plane to Emtrasur, Argentine daily Clarin reported.
“Is this a Venezuelan aircraft operated by Iranian pilots or is it an Iranian aircraft with a Venezuelan paint job?” asked Ottolenghi. There are good reasons to ask, said the senior fellow, who highlights that since it was transferred to Emtrasur, the aircraft flew mainly between Venezuela and Iran, with stopovers in Belgrade, and some ventures in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Karachi, Moscow, Cuba, and Nicaragua, on some occasions. “Many of these destinations coincide with recent routes also covered by Fars Air Qeshm and many of these flights appear to be political, rather than commercial, in nature,” he said.
Drug trafficking and disinformation
According to analysts, Iran is seeking to exert greater influence in Latin America to satisfy strategic objectives. “Tehran sees its footprint in Latin America as a resource for circumventing Western sanctions, funding its violent proxies through narcotrafficking, smuggling, and money laundering, as well as developing its alternate network to challenge the United States in the Americas,” said Nazarian.
The Tri-Border area between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil is considered a hub of criminal activity and “the worst in terms of narcotrafficking and terrorism” in the region, Nazarian added. “Hezbollah and other Iranian operatives have been exploiting [this area] by using narco funds to support terrorism, and vice versa.”
Latin America is also under the influence of Iranian propaganda. “Iran’s Spanish-language media, [such as] HispanTV, thrives on disinformation as part of its attempts to manipulate and influence regional stakeholders to confront Western democracies,’ Nazarian concluded.