Joseph Humire, writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and executive director at the Center for a Secure Free Society, spoke to a January 24 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the incursion of the Islamic Republic of Iran into the Western Hemisphere.
For the last decade, Humire has focused his expertise on tracking the presence and activities of the Iranian regime and the Shia terror group Hezbollah in Latin America. In particular, the regime's recent "very overt, invisible actions" in Venezuela over the last few years warranted a closer look. He stressed the need for policymakers to keep in mind that, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran has seen Latin America as "a strategic theater for exporting the revolution" and advancing its "long-term vision."
The Iranian regime's first goal was to "diminish its geographic disadvantage with the United States." Iran managed to "stealthily" project its power by "erecting an asymmetric presence" in Latin America as far back as 1981. Second, because of the long history of Arab populations in Latin America, Iran saw the population in the region ripe for exploitation and cultivation. Humire said his study of the last four decades of Iranian activity in Latin America found the regime accomplished its "penetration" via a "multidimensional and multiphase" strategy that began "at the religious and cultural level."
Instead of selling the regime's revolutionary zeal with Islamic rhetoric, Iran emphasized the revolution as a "social movement" emerging to "protect natural resources." In Venezuela, those included millions of barrels of fuel Iran provided during the pandemic to give Tehran a level of "strategic influence" in that country. Humire said that "Iran historically has used both commercial and cultural exchange in Latin America as a cover for its military ambitions as well as its terror support activity."
Iran's financial involvement in Argentina enabled the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 people.
This support for terror relied on a financial mechanism in its commercial dealings with Argentina that Humire described as a "tariff finance element." It played a contributing role in the 1994 AMIA terror attack in Argentina that killed eighty-five people and injured hundreds.
By the late eighties, Iran enjoyed a "privileged trade relationship" with Argentina that exported Argentinian beef to Iran for domestic consumption. Iran saw this venue as an opportunity to "[insert] spies" in Argentina to construct the "finance and logistical mechanism" that later supported the AMIA bombing. To avoid scrutiny by Argentina's foreign ministry, Tehran sent up to sixty "cultural attachés" who applied for "business visas" to "augment" Iran's embassy. With this ability to bypass the Argentine authorities, the Iranian cultural attachés claimed they were needed to supervise the beef exports to ensure that they met the Islamic "halal" dietary certification. Humire surmised the recent Iranian oil imports to Venezuela, along with other commercial projects developed there, are similarly furthering the regime's deceptive goals.
Humire said Hezbollah plays "a major role in facilitating Iran's presence and advancement in Latin America, much like it does in the Middle East." Because of Hezbollah's role "in transnational organized crime," it has become a fixture in "drug trafficking [and] money laundering." As a result, Hezbollah has been dubbed "the Western Union of the drug cartels in Latin America." Humire described the concept of Hezbollah's ability to blend its terror organization with organized crime as a "threat convergence" in which criminals and terrorists converge, if not in their "strategic objectives," then in utilizing the "middlemen" that provide the "logistics" to enable the growth of illicit networks.
Iran's influence in Latin America grows as autocratic regimes there increase in strength and number.
Iran and Hezbollah's network in Latin America has grown for over four decades. Humire explained that over this time period, Iran rode the wave of Latin America's "political phenomenon ... called the Pink Tide." This phenomenon was comprised of "populous socialists" and then "authoritarian leaders" that arose in the region. Today, there is a "resurging" in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico. Iran "pegged themselves to the core element" of these countries' leaders, who formed a Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). The result was significant Iranian investment in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Humire said that as these "autocratic regimes" grow, so will Iran's influence, as it shares the ALBA countries' end game – "to turn Latin Americans against the United States" by undermining its position "as one of the largest trade partners" with America's "demographic, cultural, [and] religious ties" to the region.
Another tactic Iran uses to gain influence among the Latin Americans is by disseminating disinformation, as when they depicted the assassination of Quds force General Soleimani as the slaying of a "martyr" analogous to an "Iranian Che Guevara" fighting global injustice. Humire said this use of "soft power and sharp power" took advantage of Latin Americans' ignorance of Soleimani by presenting him in a "false narrative."
The combination of disinformation and false narratives is part of Iran's "hybrid strategy" in Latin America, which aligns with other state actors, such as Russia and China, who "essentially challenge U.S. partners in the region through asymmetric conflicts." Humire said Iran can "capitalize" on any potential land or maritime border conflict that might erupt, or "exacerbate" protests that could internally destabilize countries.
Humire: Iran seeks to legitimize Shia Islam by presenting itself as an "ally of Christians and Catholics."
A false narrative Iran has employed to penetrate the Christian communities in Latin America while hiding their "nefarious activities" is engaging in a feigned "symbiotic, ecumenical approach" through the establishment of its Islamic centers. By exploiting many Latin Americans' ignorance of Iran's mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East, the regime seeks to legitimize Shia Islam by presenting itself as an "ally of Christians and Catholics." Humire said that there needs to be more education of Latin Americans in exposing Iran's false narratives. He believes that once the truth is out, the Lebanese population in Latin America will "distance themselves" from the Iranians.
Militarily, Iran has capitalized on border conflicts by supplying drones with the intent of "provoking militaries" to "overreact" against any incursion, particularly along maritime borders. Tehran has already supplied such drones to the Maduro regime in Venezuela. When Iran's provocative behavior in other parts of the world is exposed, it portrays itself as a victim by using the same hybrid strategy as it uses in Latin America. This is also true of Iranian "amphibious operations," which harass oil tankers and U.S. naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman.
By supplying drones to Venezuela, Humire said Iran is using the Maduro regime as its proxy to "implement that [hybrid] strategy in the Caribbean." Because Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, and China work "in tandem" to promote an "echo chamber" for Iran's narratives in the region, he stressed that it is important for America to "get smart" by forestalling Iranian efforts to create a more hostile maritime presence in the Caribbean. To "isolate Iran's advancement in Latin America," he believes the U.S. should react.
Humire: Iran, Russia, and China are emboldened because they see "signs of weakness from the Biden administration."
Humire praised the Trump administration for designating [the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and said it has wrought two advantages: it "created a synergy of communication among counterterrorism professionals" globally; and it informed the Lebanese community in Latin America that Hezbollah will be as great a detriment to them in Latin America as it has been for Lebanon itself.
Humire said the next few years will be "intense" because Iran, Russia, and China, despite their differences, realize that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." They are emboldened in their common goal to defeat the United states because they see "signs of weakness from the Biden administration."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.