The criminal and bloody attack perpetrated against Israel by the Islamist armed movement Hamas on October 7, once again raised the alarm as to the role that the Islamic Republic could be playing in financing and helping to plan and execute this type of terrorist activities worldwide, and particularly in Latin America. Experts believe that the wave of antisemitism the Gaza war has sparked could strengthen Iran’s influence in autocratic countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, and even in other countries, posing serious threats to democracy and security in the region.
So says Joseph Humire, an expert in global security and counterterrorism, director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for a Secure Free Society. According to Humire, following up and making visible the growing footprint of Iran in Latin America is a priority. To this end, joint work among the nations of the continent is urgently needed.
In November 2023, Brazil arrested two terrorists linked to the Lebanese extremist group Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Iran. “Although we must recognize the success of the Brazilian Federal Police in this case, the vulnerability of the region is a matter of concern. One of those captured had already been arrested in Paraguay, but Brazil did not have him on its radar. This shows weakness in the coordination between the countries of the continent, especially those that are part of the Triple-Border,” Humire said.
In view of this worrying situation, Humire spoke exclusively with Diálogo about Tehran’s presence, plans, and operations in Latin America. His interview reveals surprising data, such as the fact that Bolivia is Iran’s most successful project in the region, or that beyond terrorism, what Iran is seeking is to take advantage of old, unresolved historical conflicts, through the concrete actions of radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, to redraw borders and destabilize Latin American democracies, acting as a silent disruptor and creator of conflict scenarios. An example of this is the current dispute over the Essequibo. “This is the experiment. If it goes well, others will follow,” Humire said.
Latin America: Iran’s strategic theater
Three nations have joined forces in the region: China, Russia, and Iran. Their goal: to impose a new world order. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union these three countries had a network in Latin America. Iran immediately came to pick up some of those pieces; China came later, but did the same, as Russia did as well, and instead of competing they ended up working together. Today, in terms of synchronization, there is no region in the world where these three countries have greater penetration than in Latin America,” Humire said.
And it is under this scenario that Iran plays a leading role. “Iran would not be what it is today without China’s support, and China will hardly succeed without Iran’s help. When China takes off the red panda mask it’s wearing, we will see its true interests. In the meantime, let Iran do the dirty work.”
The main players in this strategic theater are Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. “They are all over the continent. From Belize to Brazil, no matter how small the country, there is the presence of Iran and Hezbollah. Even in countries where you would come to think that Iran isn’t strong, it is, as for example in Uruguay, Mexico, and Panama.”
Media platforms, cultural centers, and dual use of trade, penetration strategies
Iran’s relations with Latin America date back to 1979, with the outbreak of the revolution, when Cuba and Nicaragua forged closer ideological ties with Iran. Since then, Iran has intensified its relations and has penetrated the region through various strategies.
“Iran’s ambition is to have influence and military presence as it has in the Middle East,” Humire says. “Obviously we are talking about another part of the world, where getting to that level will take time, but all indications are that it is heading in that direction.”
Various communications platforms and cultural centers have been part of Iran’s tactics to spread its anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist narrative, allowing it to perpetrate violence and create instability, the expert says. “We are talking about Iranian cultural centers that have opened in various cities on the continent, as well as embassy programs that often include religious services to spread the principles of the Islamic Revolution. In addition to the radio and television stations and channels operated in 16 countries, through which it promotes its ideology and foreign policy objectives; it has really woven an information network with which it attracts followers and networks of sympathizers.”
In addition to this soft power strategy, there is a more aggressive one: commercial. “Under the assumption of commercial exchanges, Iran has been infiltrating spies, subversive actors, and weapons.”
The most emblematic example is the attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994, which killed 85 people and is considered one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks since World War II. “In the late 1980s Iran enjoyed a privileged relationship with Argentina for beef exports. Iran saw this as an opportunity to infiltrate spies posing as cultural attachés who came to ensure that the meat complied with Islamic ‘halal’ dietary certification, but they really came to support the financial and logistical mechanism that enabled the attack perpetrated by Hezbollah.”
A deceitful strategy that has not only remained in time but has escalated to obtain the complicity of governments and become the greatest threat of penetration in the region. “I am referring to the dual-use trade relations that Iran has implemented in the region (dual-use partnership). The most evident is the Iranian armament that has been arriving in Venezuela through commercial shipments. The Venezuelan Armed Forces are the first to have armed drones in their inventory, courtesy of Iran. As well as the shipment of Iranian-made precision-guided short-range missiles, probably to arm the drones. All has been delivered under the guise of commercial cargo shipment. This has been Iran’s modus operandi, as it did with Yemen, now we are seeing it in the region.”
A strategy that, with the complicity of its allies, has helped Iran penetrate deep into Latin America. “It has not only allowed it to evade U.S. and international sanctions, but also to confuse Latin American intelligence agencies that are unfamiliar with these covert programs of Tehran.”
Unsettling military presence
Iran has systematically built and consolidated important diplomatic relations that have allowed it to reach the highest point of its infiltration: the military. “I mean Iran today has a legitimate military presence with some countries in the region, and when I say legitimate, it is because both states agree,” Humire says.
The countries Humire is talking about are mainly Venezuela and Bolivia, two nations where Iran has escalated its diplomatic relations to reach relevant defense agreements. “Venezuela is well known, there has always been Iranian diplomatic representation, long before Hugo Chávez because of his oil agreements, this is not new, what is new is the strength that this relationship has acquired, which today has materialized in defense cooperation, from logistics to training.”
This fact has been reflected in the meetings held by both nations. In late 2022, during a Nicolás Maduro’s visit to Teheran, both regimes confirmed that they have “great cooperation fronts” in the defense sector. “I believe that between the two of us an indestructible friendship is going to grow for the future of our peoples,” Maduro told his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi during this visit.
“The case of Bolivia is more unknown, it has not been revealed so much yet, but there are also defense agreements that are going in the same direction,” Humire said.
But this is only the beginning. While Venezuela and Bolivia are among Iran’s biggest allies in the region in terms of military relations, they are not the only ones interested. “Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel have also explored military cooperation with Iran,” Humire says, adding that other countries have hinted at such intentions.
As an example, Humire highlights the two Iranian warships that arrived in Brazil in February 2023. “Situations like this raise the alarms and make clear the progress Iran has made in its military cooperation in Latin America.”
Advances that were also reflected in the profile of the members of the diplomatic corps assigned to the embassies in the region. “In four of the 11 embassies in Latin America Iran has defense attachés, in Venezuela, Bolivia Brazil, and Ecuador, and will probably increase.”
Bolivia: Iran’s most successful plan
On October 31, 2023, the Bolivian government severed diplomatic relations with Israel “in repudiation and condemnation of the aggressive and disproportionate Israeli military offensive being carried out in the Gaza Strip,” the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Freddy Mamani said. The only country that has broken off relations amid the current escalation in the Middle East is Bolivia.
“Bolivia is Iran’s most successful foreign policy project in Latin America. There is no other country in the region where Iran has managed to influence so much in such a short time,” Humire said.
Bolivia starts to become important for Iran with the arrival of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), a moment when both countries strengthen diplomatic relations, leading to a snowball effect. “Before 2007, Iran had no diplomatic presence in Bolivia. In 2010 it opens an embassy, in 2012 it already has military agreements in the drug trafficking field and three years later, Bolivians are traveling to Iran. Until 2023, the year in which both nations sign a memorandum of understanding in defense and security,” Humire said.
Iran’s Minister of Defense Mohammad Reza Qarai Ashtiani, told the Iranian press that it is an agreement to “supply Bolivia with the necessary equipment to fight drug trafficking and to preserve its border security.” The minister also said that the agreement includes academic cooperation for the Bolivian Armed Forces and would be “a model for other Latin American countries to follow, Spanish newspaper El País reported.
“What we are seeing with all this is the high level of penetration that Iran has reached in Bolivia because of the influence it has in MAS. The reason this political party has been able to stay in power for almost two decades is because Iran supports it. Iran has taught them to manage the opposition, to arm militias, to militarize borders, a fundamental support to advance their revolution.”
It is a deep relationship that worries even more so because of the possible existence of nuclear cooperation between both nations. According to Humire, Bolivia is the only country of the authoritarian groups in the region that maintains a nuclear program, and whose inspiration was Iran. Silverio Chávez, former director of the Bolivian Institute of Science and Nuclear Energy (IBTEN) confirmed it in an interview with German media company Deutsche Welle in 2016 saying, “The nuclear center is a total success. I am glad that President Morales’ friends in Iraq and Iran gave him this idea.”
“For Bolivia it is nuclear energy, but we are talking about an autocratic country that is not going to tell you it has an atomic bomb, but it does. I would pay a lot of attention to this, because this influence that Iran has achieved in Bolivia could end up in a nuclear bomb in Latin America,” Humire warned.
Iran’s reach in Latin America surprises, but more than that, it worries, because of the tensions the Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel created. The proximity of Latin America to the United States makes it so that the region plays a leading role in the evolution of events, making Iran the worst threat to the democracies of the continent. Experts like Humire call for urgent attention to Iran’s intentions and its current presence in Latin America.
In the second part of this interview, Humire addresses Venezuela’s claim over the Essequibo, and how Iran supports this claim, as well as other conflicts that remain dormant but that it seeks to awaken to destabilize the region. He also addresses the urgency of understanding how Iran moves with proxies and why Hezbollah is so important to achieve its objectives. “Latin America’s weakness and biggest challenge is its lack of knowledge […] about the geopolitical, geostrategic ambitions of these actors. It’s time for us to understand well what Iran is and what Hezbollah is and how they operate together.”
Read the next installment of Iran’s Stealthy Steps in the Region: Latin America under Threat – PART II