Despite the distance or cultural differences, Latin America has become a strategic point for Iran’s international expansion. Its proximity to the United States and the social movements that have propelled leftist governments to power in recent years are some of the factors that have contributed to this geographic area becoming a target of the Iranian revolution.
“For Tehran, Latin America is an international priority, and since the mid-1980s, its penetration in the Americas has been increasing,” the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) indicated in a late 2022 report.
The Iranian regime, through several statements, highlighted its interest in Latin America, repeatedly making public its friendship with some countries of the region, and expressing its desire to expand bilateral relations. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, during his June 2023 visit to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba emphasized his interest in expanding relations in Latin America. “We want to increase and deepen our relations in all political, economic, cultural, and all areas, especially in science and technology,” he said following his meeting with Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega, Voice of America reported.
Indoctrination and assimilation
Iran’s relations with Latin America date back to 1979 with the outbreak of the Revolution, a historic moment in which Cuba and Nicaragua strengthened ideological ties with Iran, and as such becoming the pioneers of Iranian expansion in the region, according to the IEEE study. Since then, relations between Iran and the region have intensified through various penetration strategies implemented by Tehran.
For Joseph Humire, global security expert and executive director of the think tank Center for a Secure Free Society, these infiltrations could be divided into two main phases.
The first of these he calls “indoctrination.” According to Humire, under the assumption of commercial and cultural exchanges, Iran infiltrated spies and other subversive actors in charge of organizing intelligence networks throughout the region. Through this strategy, the expert said, “Tehran set out to understand political factors, local populations and societies, and prevailing socioeconomic and demographic trends, to find the best way to influence Latin America in favor of the Iranian revolution.”
The consequences of these infiltrations are reflected in the IEEE study, which points out that in the early 1990s Hezbollah spread rapidly through “recruitment and subsequent training of Latin American citizens to commit terrorist attacks,” such as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and the 1994 terrorist attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).
The second phase, “assimilation,” took place as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, strengthening Tehran’s will to expand its ideology in Latin America.
“Once Iran’s informal presence in Latin America has sufficient influence, it is used to reinforce 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 its covert nuclear missile programs,” Humire said.
Key to this phase was the support Iran received from the late Hugo Chávez, through whom Iran significantly increased its presence in the region, not only through ideological but also military influence. According to the IEEE research, Iran is Venezuela’s second commercial partner and has observer status at the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). In addition, its direct flights to Venezuela are the gateway for Iranians in Latin America.
In other countries such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia, Iran has also shown some level of success, Humire said, with Bolivia being where it has penetrated most intensely in recent years. “Bolivia is probably where Iran has made the most progress in Latin America, as it successfully advanced through the various stages of strategic infiltration, in line with the ‘process of change’ (promises of social, cultural, economic, and political changes) of the Evo Morales regime,” Humire added.
Experts assure that Iran’s objective is to continue to gain access to the region and coordinate the movement of people and materials through vague logistical practices. For analysts, Iran will continue to seek to expand its influence in Latin America through illicit activities, disinformation, hate speeches, and even new terrorist attacks. They warn about the importance for regional countries of exercising caution when doing business with Iran.
Beware: risk of military penetration
Iran’s activities in Latin America are also of concern because of their military reach. In mid-2021, alarms set off due to the presence of two Iranian warships in the South Atlantic, whose destination, according to Tehran, was Venezuela, CNN en Español reported. For Humire this was “a not very subtle sign that the Islamic Republic considers Latin America an important strategic scenario, worthy of advanced military operations.”
According to the expert, for a long time Iran felt at a disadvantage with the United States because of its geographical remoteness. “The day is coming when Iran will have diminished this disadvantage to become a larger threat in the Western Hemisphere,” Humire concluded.