Nuts and Bolts of Iran’s Ideological Expansion in Latin America

Joseph Humire, a global security expert specializing on transnational threats in the Western Hemisphere, identified an incremental, four-pronged (cultural, diplomatic, economic, and military) Iranian “pattern of penetration” in 2015 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to explain how Iran has grown its presence and influence in Latin America since the Islamic Revolution. Iran’s approach to the region has been characterized by simultaneous efforts to establish formalized, government-to-government alliances coupled with unconventional, grassroots efforts to proselytize, convert, and radicalize Latin American nationals (both Muslim and non-Muslim) into committed backers of Iran’s revolutionary ideology.

The first phase of Iran’s Latin America strategy centered on cultural exchange and was inaugurated during the early 1980s as Iran sought to cultivate ties with both Islamic and local communities, especially seeking to capitalize on their wealth and political connections. This cultural cooperation begat more formalized diplomatic ties throughout the 1990s into the new millennium, reaching an apex during the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which witnessed Iran nearly double its embassies in the region from six to twelve between 2004 and 2010.

Iran’s enhanced diplomatic presence in turn spurred greater economic and trade ties, although many agreements, memoranda of understanding (MOUs), and promised large-scale infrastructure projects ultimately never came to fruition. The proliferation of Iranian embassies also served to reinforce Iran’s cultural penetration, as Iran has subsequently moved to establish a series of mosques, cultural centers, educational institutions and media organs in the surrounding communities to proselytize, propagandize, and establish links to the targeted communities, while also embedding “eyes and ears” on the ground.

In a 2015 U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Posture Statement, then-SOUTHCOM Commander General John F. Kelly noted, “Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population. The purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam, and increase Iran’s political influence in the region.” This figure represented over a 100% increase since 2012, when the SOUTHCOM posture statement estimated that there were 36 Iranian-linked cultural centers in Latin America.

Iran’s increased cultural, diplomatic, and economic engagement in Latin America has laid the groundwork for Iranian intelligence, IRGC, and Hezbollah operatives to establish a foothold in the region as well. Iran’s Latin American embassies tend to be populated by larger-than-necessary staffs, and according to Humire, “serve as bases for Iranian intelligence operatives who immerse themselves into local societies.”

Iranian agents have sought to infiltrate or co-opt intelligence and defense services in numerous targeted Latin American countries, with varying degrees of success. Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor who died under suspicious circumstances while investigating Iran’s involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing in Argentina, warned the authorities of Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Colombia in his 2013 indictment report on the AMIA case that Iran is seeking to infiltrate their countries “to install intelligence stations - in other words espionage bases - destined to commit, encourage and sponsor terror attacks like the one that took place against AMIA."