Emanuele Ottolenghi, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of two books on external Iranian networks, spoke to a December 23rd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about Iran's influence operations in Latin America, which advance its global agenda of exporting its anti-American Islamic revolution. The following is a summary of his remarks:
The Iranian regime has been establishing "cells" throughout Latin America since 1982 "to spread its revolutionary message, recruit converts to its cause, and establish political ties to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) [and] political movements wherever possible, [and] also to like-minded regimes ready to support its political agenda." Established in Iran's holy city of Qom in 2007, Al Mustafa International University is the regime's "operational center" for this task. Since its founding, the university has bestowed academic titles on over 50,000 students from 122 nations, many of whom have been ordained as imams [clerics].
Funded by the regime and controlled by Iran's Supreme Leader, Al Mustafa recruits, indoctrinates, and radicalizes its converts. Once ordained, these newly minted imams are placed in their countries of origin to head Iranian-sponsored centers and mosques. Many of the converts from Christianity were political activists from the extreme left, while others came from neo-Nazi movements. Upon returning to their native countries from Al Mustafa's program, the imams spread Iran's revolutionary message into varied institutions that penetrate cultural, social, and political networks.
Mohsen Rabbani, former cleric of Al Tawhid's Shia mosque in Buenos Aires, and more recently the Iranian Embassy's cultural attaché in that city, leads Al Mustafa's operations in Latin America. Implicated in the 1992 terror attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 AMIA bombing of Buenos Aires' Jewish community center, Rabbani is on Interpol's list for arrest. However, he managed to return to "the safety of Qom" and continues running operations at Al Mustafa's Islam Oriente department, which coordinates proselytizing activities in Latin America. With an annual budget of over $80 million, the department employs thousands of teachers, sponsors ongoing cultural and religious events in the target countries, and manages "thousands" of internet platforms for online courses across Latin America. The department also established "scientific operation agreements" with Latin American universities that serve as conduits for proselytizing campus students.
Most Latin American countries have small Shia communities of Lebanese and Iranian expatriates, and many Shia Islamic institutions in Latin America's Lebanese diaspora communities are linked to Iran and the terror group, Hezbollah. In Brazil, "one of the largest Lebanese diasporas in the world," most of the estimated ten million Brazilians of Lebanese extraction are the descendants of Christians who fled the Ottoman Empire. Although the estimate includes one million Muslims, ten percent of whom are Shia, Rabbani's main objective is to convert the non-Muslim locals, then indoctrinate and radicalize them to serve the Iranian revolution.
Rabbani oversees Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking clerics who are charged with promoting the revolutionary message as they travel across Latin America. Rabbani's clerical foot soldiers not only organize seminars, cultural, and academic events, but they also advertise Al Mustafa's all-expense paid trips for applicants and their families to "the Islamic Republic of Iran." The imams also expand their "continent-wide" recruitment opportunities by establishing "local media platforms ... publishing houses and cultural association[s]."
Iran's social media presence is rife with Holocaust denial and anti-Israel propaganda. In addition, as part of its campaign to indoctrinate an adolescent audience, the regime's publishing centers in Latin America promote, for example, a book memorializing slain Quds force general Qassem Soleimani entitled Mi Tio Soleimani, My Uncle or My Friend Soleimani.
In 2012, Iran launched its Spanish language propaganda network, Hispan TV, as Al Mustafa-affiliated centers established more local radio and television programs showcasing trainees as "analyst[s], journalists and commentators." The Al Mustafa pundits further amplify their message by "re-appear[ing]" on like-minded affiliated television networks, such as on Russia's Spanish television program, Actualidad RT, or in the Bolivarian regime's network, Telesur, in Venezuela. By coordinating with other authoritarian regimes, including China, the Iranian regime spreads its anti-Western animosity. Thus, the Iranian effort is part of "the front of Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, to push back what they consider to be Western imperialism."
Iran's strategy in Latin America is not limited to merely indoctrinating the population in "Iran's revolutionary ideology." It also includes grooming the more "promising" Al Mustafa alumni to segue from the mosques and cultural centers into becoming "political and social activists" who will penetrate the political system and ultimately shape policy. Iran's vast system of influence operations and soft power is employed through its cultural centers and related offshoots, which are active in "virtually all Hispanic countries in Latin America." In addition to its presence in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, Iran's network is in Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru.
The Islamic Republic's widespread network is of particular concern to Ottolenghi because of Tehran's ability to "activate" its indoctrinated supporters and agents to provide the "logistics and infrastructure" for terror bombings and attacks, as was the case in 1992 and 1994. Venezuela is considered a "forward operating base" for Iran and Hezbollah. The base enjoys the tacit approval of the friendly government, which turns a blind eye to their criminal drug trafficking operations with communities in Colombia and Panama. The tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, historically a money laundering environment for Hezbollah, provides funding for the terror group's Middle East activities. Such assistance is derived from the illicit economy that flourishes in the region, which generates between five and twenty billion dollars a year for the organization.
A factor contributing to the legitimization of these Iran-affiliated Islamic centers is the lack of pushback from the church. An Iraqi imam in São Paulo, who has been involved in "Iranian revolutionary activity since the 1980s," was welcome to engage in "interfaith dialogue" with the Catholic church, which "seems to not be paying too much attention to this issue." Surprisingly, even the generally more pro-Israel evangelical churches are not attuned to the threat. Although past U.S. government administrations, fully aware of Iran's influence operations, have also largely neglected the gathering storm in Latin America, the Trump administration paid more attention to the issue. Currently, the Biden administration is focusing more on the corruption that indirectly fuels the Iranian networks in order to weaken its "enablers."
Ottolenghi's recommendation for current and future U.S. administrations is to concentrate on the law enforcement institutions and government agencies of allied countries who are dependent on the U.S. for their "security, trade, and prosperity." By doing so, the U.S. can ensure these institutions and agencies crack down on the corruption that feeds the network that "ultimately finance[s] terrorism and Iranian adventurism in the Middle East."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.