When two Iranian warships steamed around the southern tip of Africa in early June 2021, in a possible voyage to Venezuela, alarm bells rang throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. What once seemed impossible looked to be inevitable as regional intelligence officials scrambled to determine the implications of Iranian naval vessels in Caribbean waters.
After weeks of speculation, in July, the Iranian warships, the IRINS Makran and IRINS Sahand changed course and sailed north through the English Channel into the Baltic Sea en route to Russia. This close call prompts an assessment of Iran’s intrusion into Latin America. Fortunately, analysts have a substantial amount of empirical evidence to draw upon after almost 40 years of Iran’s prolonged presence in the region. This presence established a modus operandi of Iran’s regional activities that, when analyzed, illustrates a multi-dimensional, multiphased effort that I’ve termed Iran’s pattern of penetration.
Phase one: indoctrination
At the strategic level, this penetration involves a gradual transition from an informal presence to a formal one, while simultaneously and systematically growing its military activity. During the 1980s, Iran initiated this strategy through a covert presence in a handful of Latin American countries under the guise of commercial and cultural exchanges. This cultural and religious penetration allowed Iran, as well as Hezbollah, to embed itself within the small, but relevant Shiite Islamic populations in targeted countries. More importantly, it established an infrastructure through which Iran could insert spies and other subversive actors into the region, operatives who in the years since have built intelligence networks throughout the region. This phase can be viewed as an indoctrination stage for Iran’s presence in Latin America, one in which Tehran focused on understanding political factors, local populations, indigenous societies, and prevailing socio-economic and demographic trends to find the best approach to sway Latin America toward the Iranian revolution.
At the turn of the century, the rise of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc prompted a metamorphosis of Iran’s covert presence into a more formal diplomatic and economic presence, with the Iranian regime more than doubling its embassies in Latin America and establishing lines of credit with a half-dozen countries in the region. This formal presence augmented the informal network of Iran-backed mosques and Islamic charities, establishing a command-and-control structure throughout Latin America managed by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry (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 the historic grievances against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and later British Petroleum in Iran. This approach has opened doors in many Latin American countries whose fledgling communist movements and indigenous societies have a long history of clashing over natural resources with Western multinational corporations. As a result, in 2015, then commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran had established more than 80 Shiite Islamic cultural centers in Latin America.
Alberto Nisman, the late special prosecutor for the 1994 Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA, in Spanish) terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, once described these Iran-backed, Shiite Islamic centers as “antennas” for the Iranian revolution. Today, they are more like cell towers as they transmit and receive a multitude of strategic messaging in favor of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and its “axis of resistance,” while disseminating disinformation against the United States, Israel, and regional allies.
Then SOUTHCOM commander, U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller testified in 2021 that “Tehran maintains a Spanish-language channel [HispanTV] that reaches 17 countries in the region.” HispanTV began in 2010, initially using the existing infrastructure of Venezuela’s state-owned regional media outlet, 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 commonalities,” while the second “expresses the need for radical change in the world order, with the United States as the chief obstacle to that change.”
Phase two: assimilation
On December 8, 2020, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on a massive university network based in the Shiite holy city of Qom, Iran, alleging that it was involved in the recruitment of Afghan and Pakistani students to fight in the Syrian civil war. The main sanctioned entity, Al-Mustafa International University, has also trained thousands of Latin Americans since it began operations in 2007.
Many of the graduates of Iran’s indoctrination programs at Al-Mustafa International University have recently started to gain political influence in Latin America, namely in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, Chile, and Mexico. For instance, a leader of the Shiite 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 greater access to the country’s political and economic elites. Iran leverages this influence to establish front companies that serve as conduits for Iran’s covert missile and nuclear programs. This process is most evident in Venezuela, where Iran leveraged its relationship with the late Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro to erect a military industrial complex that blends Iran’s growing commercial presence with increasing dual-use military activity managed by the elite Qods Force of the IRGC.
Aside from Venezuela, this second phase of assimilating with a host country’s culture, institutions, and political and economic elites has had varying degrees of success in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, where Iran enjoys a privileged status as an observing member of the ALBA bloc. But it is Bolivia where Iran has arguably made the most gains in Latin America, as it has successfully moved through the various stages of strategic penetration alongside the proceso de cambio (promises of social, cultural, economic, and political changes) of the Evo Morales regime.
Bolivia: Iran’s preferred partner
An indigenous activist turned socialist political leader, Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005 and governed the country for 14 years until resigning in 2019, after allegations of massive electoral fraud. In this time, Iran grew from having a negligible presence in Bolivia to becoming one of the top allies of then President Morales and the ruling MAS political party. Opening a new embassy in 2008, in the following years, Iran signed several bilateral agreements with Bolivia in hydrocarbons, agriculture, health, forestation, culture, mining, space, security, and nanotechnology.
The year prior, in 2007, Iran began to recruit and indoctrinate select Bolivian nationals through its Al Mustafa International University outreach programs. These recruits opened pathways for Iran to expand its cultural outreach in the arts, television, and sports in Bolivia, leading to a greater Iranian presence in the Andean nation. A controversial 2011 visit to Bolivia by Iran’s former 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 Iran’s then Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif solidified the strong 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 exceptional merit to Bolivia.
Before Iran and Bolivia started building 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 Parana River, and in Riberalta, both near the border with Brazil. Iran dovetailed on this military agreement to extend the tentacles of the IRGC, well entrenched in Venezuela, to Bolivia. The 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 in Caracas.
Phase three: conflict?
Some analysts believed that the passing of Chávez would bring about an abrupt end to Iran’s foray into Latin America. Eight years later, this has not happened as Iran has engaged in a systematic, long-term approach to build and sustain a strategic presence in Latin America.
The old refrain, “intelligence drives operations,” is an indication that intelligence operations, by their nature, provide support to decision makers who plan policies and particular course of 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, have largely focused on aggressive diplomacy and intelligence collection and analysis. However, as elsewhere, this preparation is ultimately meant 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 a significant strategic arena, and one worthy of advanced military operations. Iran has long been dismayed about 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.