Nowhere in Latin America has Iran’s influence been more effective and pronounced than in Venezuela. Since the late Hugo Chavez’s anti-American brand of politics came to power in the late nineties, Caracas has been a key ally to the Iranian regime, especially during Ahmadinejad’s hardline administration in Iran. In February 2022, the Venezuelan ambassador to Tehran, Carlos Cordones, hailed the Islamic Republic and its 1979 revolution as a “magnificent example.” His envoy released a statement saying that the Iranian, Cuban, and Venezuelan revolutions each shared in the resistance against U.S. imperialism and hegemony. The message resonates with many Lebanese and Syrians in Venezuela, who have been immigrating there for over one hundred and fifty years, but in particular two men of Syrian descent: Adel Al Zabayar and Tareck El Aissami. These men are representative of Hezbollah’s effort to embed loyalists within the regime-controlled illicit economy and the political apparatus and bureaucracy. The prevalence of illicit activities sanctioned by state institutions makes Venezuela an appealing location for Hezbollah and Iran to coopt the political elite.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Zabayar, a close associate of Nicolas Maduro, in a narco-terrorism conspiracy in which he traveled to the Middle East to acquire arms in exchange for cocaine and to recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas into the “Cartel de Los Soles.” The goal was “to create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel do Los Soles,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The charges against Zabayar came on the heels of a DOJ indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which alleged that he “helped manage and ultimately lead” the criminal organization “Cartel de Los Soles.” Aissami, known to be one of Iran’s most valuable assets in Latin America, “a diplomatic refuge for terrorists and local guerrilla fighters,” is Venezuela’s former vice president and current petroleum minister. An avowed Hezbollah supporter, Aissami is alleged to have provided Venezuelan passports and IDs to Hezbollah affiliates when he was in charge of Venezuela’s Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Aissami for money laundering and facilitating the drug trade, and in 2019 he was placed on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Most Wanted List. By engaging with and providing cover for Hezbollah operatives, Zabayar and Aissami enable the terrorist group to conduct money laundering, narcotrafficking, and terrorist activities that threaten the U.S. and thereby advance Iran’s interests. Building connections with such individuals will likely remain central to Iran’s strategy in the region for years to come.
Iran relies on a network of educational institutions to propagate its anti-American message in Venezuela. A newly-created think-tank, the Samuel Robinson Institute (SRI), for example, reliably disseminates Iranian propaganda. Created in October 2020 with direct ties to the Iranian regime, there is still not much publicly available information about its influence in Venezuela. Nevertheless, it is clear from a report by the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) that the think-tank utilizes an information strategy geared toward “building goodwill, sympathy, cultural affinity, and commonality” with Iran. The well-funded organization does this in a number of ways, including telling stories about Shia Muslims, Iranian goodwill, and cultural outreach. The pro-Iranian propaganda also tends to frame the Iranian regime as heroes in the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The SRI website hosts stories in support of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and a Bolivarian conception of U.S. colonialism. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attended a conference for the institution’s inauguration in November 2020, and he gave a lecture about “US/Western terror tactics in attempts to halt the course of history toward a post-Western world.” SRI’s parent organization, Misión Verdad (Truth Mission), tows a similar line. Misión Verdad’s research focuses on the demise of U.S. global hegemony and Venezuelan-Iranian ties. The media outlet ran a story in October 2021, emphasizing Venezuelan-Iranian cooperation in the petroleum sector. The story describes how Iranian gas condensate is blended with Venezuelan heavy crude oil in order to make the product more attractive to refineries around the world. The distinct worldview of the Iranian political establishment has clearly permeated the SRI and the Misión Verdad; they serve as microphones for Iranian propaganda.
Another influential educational institution in Venezuela is Al-Mustafa University (AIU). In November 2020, AIU inaugurated the Cátedra Libre Qassem Soleimani (The Qassem Soleimani Chair for Sociocultural and Geopolitical Studies in Latin America and the Middle East) at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas, with the intended purpose of “reflection, discussion, scientific research, and dissemination of topics related to the legacy and fields of action of General Qassem Soleimani – as a hero and martyr of the anti-imperialist struggle.” Leftist parties in Venezuela and throughout Latin America view the former Quds Force commander as a posterchild for their struggle against U.S. hegemonic influence in the western hemisphere, akin to Che Guevara. In January 2022, Telesur, Venezuela’s propaganda network, republished an article written by Pablo Leal, a contributor to Al Mustafa’s Hispanic language department, lionizing the late general: “The highest level which the human race can aspire to is to be revolutionary…[Soleimani was] an authentic revolutionary.” Soleimani’s depiction as an international hero and martyr resonates not only with the far left, but those who are critical of U.S. foreign policy. The slaying of Soleimani was evidently an affront to revolutionary movements in Venezuela and throughout Latin America.