Iran’s Soft-Power Infrastructure

The main feature that unites Venezuela and Iran and minimizes their obvious religious and political differences is their deep-seated ideological hostility toward the U.S. Iran-linked cultural, religious, and educational institutions in Venezuela provide a forum to propagate this anti-Americanism and an anti-Israeli worldview and to cultivate trust and loyalty, which lays the groundwork for future economic, political, and military cooperation. This network injects pro-Iranian messaging into Venezuelan society, which tends to be framed in terms of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism, valorizing resistance figures like Simón Bolívar, Che Guevara, and more recently, the late IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, a terrorist leader responsible for the death of over 600 U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq. Iran’s Al-Mustafa University has pioneered soft-power projection in Venezuela, flanked by Hispan TV, the regime’s chief propaganda outlet in Latin America.

In 2004, the Iranian Al-Mustafa University established the Centro de Intercambio Cultural Iran Latino America (CICIL) in Caracas. An Iranian cleric, Mohsen Rabbani, who was involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, runs CICIL’s parent organization, the Qom-based Islam Oriente. The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Al-Mustafa in December 2020 for its role in recruiting fighters for the war in Syria. The sanctions came one month after the university opened a center at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in Caracas dedicated to Qassem Soleimani, whom it called “the hero and martyr of the anti-imperialist struggle.” Many left-wing groups in Venezuela and throughout Latin America view the former Quds Force commander as the Middle East equivalent of Che Guevara, epitomizing resistance to U.S. hegemony.

Additionally, the Iranian-linked Samuel Robinson Institute (SRI) formed in October 2020, has hosted events featuring Venezuelan socialist leaders and their Iranian allies. Iran’s former Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, spoke at the institute’s inaugural event, reflecting on the two countries’ cooperation in the oil sector and the history of their political ties. He heavily criticized the U.S. for “terrorizing” Venezuelan people in his lecture titled, “US/Western terror tactics in attempts to halt the course of history toward a post-Western world.” The SRI website features stories about the Shia Muslim faith, Iranian goodwill, and Iran's positive role in Iraq and Syria.

Al-Mustafa University and SRI are tools to promote trust in and loyalty to Tehran. According to Joseph Humire, an expert on Hezbollah’s Latin America operations, Iran (and Hezbollah) use these and other cultural institutions to identify and form bonds between its operatives and certain wealthy and politically well-connected individuals in Venezuela.

Iran’s growing media coverage in Latin America is also essential to its diplomatic campaign. In 2019, then commander of U.S. Southern Command Admiral Craig S. Faller stated before Congress, "Iran has deepened its anti-U.S. Spanish language media coverage and has exported its state support for terrorism into our hemisphere.” By spreading anti-American and anti-Israeli messaging via its media network, Hispan TV, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting potentially generates interest in criminal activities and terrorist groups like Hezbollah.