Iran’s Ideological Expansion: Latin America

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has undertaken a concerted strategy to strengthen its political, commercial, cultural, and military ties to Latin America and the Caribbean, establishing “clandestine networks that operated under the guise of cultural and commercial exchanges.” Although geographically distant, a variety of factors have made Latin America a tantalizing and fruitful target for Iran’s efforts to export its Khomeinist ideology. First and foremost, Iran has sought to expand its influence and capabilities in the region due to its proximity to Iran’s chief adversary, the United States, viewing Latin America as an ideal staging ground from which to undermine U.S. national security and interests.

The next major factor which has attracted Iran is the presence of lawless free-trade zones in the region, where Iran-backed terror organizations have carried out money laundering, narcotrafficking, and other terrorist operational and financial activities with relative ease. In particular, Iran has focused its efforts on the Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah have “developed intelligence and logistical support networks in the region without restraint,” drawing upon existing Shi’a and Lebanese diaspora communities for assistance and cover for their illicit criminal activities. Iran has also proliferated mosques, cultural centers, health clinics and educational facilities in the TBA between Peru, Chile, and Bolivia; infrastructure which indicates Iran is seeking to anchor its terrorist networks in the area.

Third, Iran’s ties to the region have accelerated in recent years due to the burgeoning of its alliance with the leftist, populist, anti-imperialist bloc Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) founded by former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The ALBA project has been characterized by its member nations’ desire to supplant U.S. dominance in the region, and in Iran, they found a willing anti-American strategic partner. Iran has joined ALBA’s intergovernmental association as an observer state, providing it a forum “to have conversations with countries it otherwise would not have the ability to talk to, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores Palace in Caracas in 2012
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores Palace in Caracas in 2012.

Iran’s alliance with ALBA was an outgrowth of the warm personal ties cultivated between former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chavez. Much like Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the “Bolivarian revolution” led by Chavez seeks to “challenge the Western world’s system of rule of law and representative democracy, and seeks to replace it with a new authoritarian model of governance. The purpose of this model is to establish a ‘new world order’ – one in which Latin America’s transformation is simply one chapter of a global revolution. Ostensibly, Iran’s Islamic Revolution is another such chapter.

Although the Bolivarian revolution is secular and leftist in orientation while Iran’s is Islamist and theocratic, Iran has sought to paper over the inherent differences by co-opting anti-imperialist discourse and branding itself as a champion of human rights, social justice, and a defender of oppressed communities. Iran has dispatched preachers and other proxies to the region to present this sanitized version of the Islamic Revolution, enabling it to “gain footholds among disenfranchised and marginalized communities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru. Relying on allies such as Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Iran has established forward operating bases for the spread of their propaganda.” Iran also launched HispanTV in 2012, giving the regime a platform to broadcast its ideology into at least 16 countries in the region.

While Ahmadinejad and Chavez have both since passed from the scene, Iran under the administration of President Hassan Rouhani continued to focus on Latin America as a latent theater of operations, with Iran’s foothold in the region strengthening in proportion to ALBA’s growing dominance over Latin America’s trajectory. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela in August 2016 with a 60 member economic delegation. The visit took place months after Implementation Day of the JCPOA, which had enriched Iran and ended its international economic isolation. Iran’s continued focus on the region is significant, as Iran is no longer reliant on the Latin American nexus to weather the international sanctions regime. Rather, Zarif’s visit indicates that Iran intends on expending some of its new-found resources toward strengthening its anti-American strategic alliance with the ALBA nations.

Iran has expanded its presence in Latin American countries through so-called cultural exchanges, often launched out of its embassy. In his book, “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America,” Joseph Humire details how cultural exchanges transition into political and economic cooperation, which provide “the cover necessary to insert more operatives, create front companies, establish backdoor channels with the host government, and ultimately carve out spaces for their military and paramilitary officers to enter the region in support of the Islamic Republic’s strategic interests.” The Iranian embassy is a means to establish a pretext of commercial and cultural exchange, but its true purpose is to lay the groundwork for Iranian operatives to embed in local communities and to manage a network of espionage and terrorism.

Iran’s soft-power resources in Latin America have been particularly effective in countries where leftist political parties control the government, because these parties tend to embrace the Iranian rhetoric of anti-oppression and anti-imperialism, targeted at the U.S. and Israel. For that reason, the “Pink Tide” of leftist parties that came to power in the early 2000s presented Iran with an opportunity. Many of those parties were swept from power in the mid-2010s, but center-right- and right-wing leaders are now widely held responsible for the prevalent economic suffering, widening inequality, and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, more recently, leftist parties are making a comeback, which could make it more difficult for the U.S. to isolate the socialist regimes in the region that are sympathetic to Iran. Thus, this shift in ruling parties presents Iran with another opportunity to expand its soft-power influence in Latin America and advance its strategic interests vis-à-vis the U.S. This is the case in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Honduras, and Argentina; and could become the case in Colombia and Brazil in the near future. Besides these potential inroads, the well-established authoritarian socialist governments of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua continue to serve as a bastion of pro-Iranian sentiment.

Chile, for example, recently elected the young leftist Gabriel Boric to the presidency. A significant element within his constituency is strongly pro-Palestine. Afterall, Chile is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in the world. Boric has embraced the anti-Israel positions of his constituency, calling Israel a “murderous state,” and advocating for legislation that would boycott goods, services, and products from Israeli settlements. He is likely to give an ear to Iran, which already has established a network of cultural institutions in the country, including one cultural center in the capital, Santiago, that is run by a Hezbollah cleric. This cleric claims to support inter-religious dialogue and religious coexistence and frames the Saudi brand of Islam, referred to as Wahhabism, as the opposite. At the same time, however, he has spread anti-Israel hatred and pro-Iranian propaganda, organizing Quds Day rallies in Santiago and building alliances with the local Palestinian diaspora.