By Hassan Dai
Source: Iranian-American Forum
As the popular uprising against President Nicolas Maduro continues in Venezuela, the prospect of his corrupt and bankrupt regime falling nears ever closer. This would be a huge setback for Iran‘s Latin American policy which began in the mid-2000s during the presidencies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez. Venezuela became Iran’s main ally in Latin America and Iran established close and friendly relations with the so-called “leftist governments” of Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Bribing its Latin American allies in order to get a foothold in the continent, Iran generously granted billions of dollars of financial aid to these governments and financed construction of hospitals and power plants.
These new relations help Iran to pursue simultaneous goals such as seeking international allies in order to overcome its diplomatic isolation; circumvent economic sanctions; and, to obtain favorable votes in international organizations such as the UN Security Council.
Moreover, close relations with Venezuela and other Latin American governments helped Iran, and its main proxy Hezbollah, to establish a vast global network of drug trafficking and money laundering. During the past decade, the United States, European, and several Latin American governments have collaborated to combat these networks. Together, they have carried out numerous operations, have arrested hundreds of operatives, and have dismantled scores of “front companies” around the globe.
(For a comprehensive overview of Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering, see Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi’s Congressional testimony, April 17, 2018)
In order to expand its influence in Latin America Iran has established a network of Islamic and Cultural Centers that target expatriate Muslim communities.
A key figure behind Iran’s religious activities in Latin America is the Cleric Mohsen Rabbani who was the Iranian Cultural Attaché in Argentina in the 1980s and early 1990s. He built the Towhid Mosque in Buenos Aires – which has become a stronghold for pro-Tehran Shiite immigrants in that country.
In 1994, a terrorist attack against the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires killed 85 innocent civilians. Cleric Rabbani, several Iranian high-ranking officials, and the Hezbollah military commander were identified as the main suspects for planning and carrying out the attack. Consequently, Rabbani was forced to leave Argentina. When he returned to Iran, he became responsible for Iran’s Islamic activities in Latin America.
The main organization Rabbani uses to carry out his mission is “the Islam Oriente” which operates from the city of Qom, a religious center which is south of Tehran.
In 2012, a special educational institution was created in Qom to train Iranian clerics for missionary assignments in Latin America, where, selected clerics learn Spanish or Portuguese, and study the cultures and politics of targeted countries. This center has now trained more than 300 missionaries.
Also, in 2016, the Imam Ali Shiite Seminary was founded in Qom for Latin American students who come to Iran to become Shiite clerics. Presently, nearly 100 students are being taught Islamic courses in this seminary in Spanish.
These three organizations, “the Islam Oriente”, the missionary school for Iranian clerics, and the Seminary for Latin American students are all under the supervision of cleric Mohsen Ghomi, who is the deputy chairman of Iran Supreme Leader’s foreign relations office. (See also Mohsen Ghomi’s visit to Tehran-affiliated Islamic center in Brazil)
During a 2014 interview, Rabbani, bragging about his success in Latin America declared: “we began our activities in Argentina in the early 1980s and built the Towhid Mosque in Buenos Aires. Today, 45 Islamic Centers are spreading the Islamic message in 21 Latin American countries.”
These Centers and Mosques target Shiite immigrants living in Latin America. They are run by clerics who are directly tied to Tehran or affiliated with Hezbollah. These Centers are involved in a wide range of religious and cultural activities and interact with their local communities. Clerics from Tehran or Lebanon are sent there both to indoctrinate Muslims and to convert non-Muslims to the Iranian version of Islamic ideology and to recruit them to Iranian political goals – hoping to subsequently have them provide material support and services to Iranian and Hezbollah operatives.
One of the Iranian regime’s “point men,” who regularly travels across Latin America to coordinate and supervise the activities of pro-Tehran Islamic Centers is Suhail Assad – a Lebanese-Argentinian national who studied theology in both Qom and in Lebanon.
Iran is also operating the Spanish language Hispan TV which broadcasts via satellite to Latin American countries. Hispan TV has diverse cultural and political programs that are aimed at all segments of the population in these countries. It also provides religious programs, notably a weekly program featuring Suhail Assad and the pro-Tehran cleric Abdul-Karim Paz who is the Imam of a Mosque in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hezbollah’s two TV networks, Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen also provide programs in Spanish which they broadcast via satellite to Latin America. In addition to these TV stations, Iran and Hezbollah-affiliated Islamic Centers run several radio stations which mainly broadcast religious programs. Iran and its affiliates have also created hundreds of websites aimed at the Latin American audience.
Cultural Attachés at Iranian embassies are also very active, organizing events and conferences to promote the Iranian agenda. These Cultural Attaché and, the Tehran-affiliated Islamic Centers, work together to expand Iranian influence and attempt to forge alliances with local religious and political organizations, especially “left” and “anti-American” groups. One of Tehran’s usual tactics to attain this goal is the adoption of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli positions. For this purpose, they organize an annual Al-Quds day in which both pro-Tehran Muslims and some anti-American leftists participate.