The Iranian regime’s involvement in virtually all crises and hotspots in the Middle East is clear. Yet, the destructive operations of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its extraterritorial Quds Force stretch throughout the globe. Their operatives work under different banners to implement the regime’s “Universal Islamic Revolution” doctrine, which is essentially the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. One area that has become the Iranian regime’s “zone of operation” is Latin America.
The regime’s network of terrorism and mafia gangs in South American countries have emerged as a result of decades of corruption and underdevelopment in those countries. In recent years, the IRGC and its proxy terrorist group, Hezbollah, have been able to circumvent international sanctions and earn hard currency by strengthening their foothold in Latin America.
A regime that hangs people for having several grams of drugs in Iran runs one of the largest drug empires in Latin America through its terrorist proxy group Hezbollah. This report sheds light on some aspects of the Iranian regime’s presence in South America and how this ominous presence endangers people in those counties as well as global peace and security.
Decades of chronic failures in Latin American countries such as corruption, organized crime, and political violence have helped the Iranian regime make concrete efforts to export its ideological and political influence in the Western Hemisphere.
On January 9, 2017, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the head of IRGC’s cultural and social affairs, who was also the commander of the IRGC’s Basij militias, acknowledged the security cooperation between Iran and many countries in Latin America. “A team from Latin America came to our country to receive training in how to establish the Basij,” he told the state-run TV, adding that the trainees “gravitated toward Islam and were commending Iran’s resistance and achievements.”
In 2009, Naqdi helped Venezuela’s Ministries of Defense and Interior train their notorious militias, known as the colectivos’. In 2015, Fox News released Naqdi’s photos at a 2009 meeting with Venezuela’s then-president Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela. Years later, the results of Naqdi’s support became evident on the streets of Venezuela as the colectivos’ imposed a heavy crackdown on innocent protesters.
On 22 November 2020, Hussein Salami, the IRGC Commander-in-Chief, acknowledged: “Today, the power of the Islamic Revolution has removed America from its strategic base. Today, the Basij discourse has spread in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Latin America, and parts of Africa.”
This so-called show of “power” amounts to terrorist operations, like the foiled assassination plot of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in 2011, the recent arrest of two Iranian operatives in Colombia in November 2021, and the AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994.
In March 2020, months after the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force Commander, Southern Command’s Admiral Craig Faller raised the alarm about possible retaliatory attacks: “Some Hezbollah supporters cache weapons and raise funds, often via charitable donations, remittances, and sometimes through illicit means, such as drug trafficking and money laundering. Having a footprint in the region also allows Iran to collect intelligence and conduct contingency planning for possible retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and Western interests.”
In his March 2021 Statement, Admiral Faller declared, “Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), its external operations arm, is responsible for at least three high-profile attacks in the region and three other planned operations that were disrupted.”
“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, Tehran’s primary external operations unit for exporting the Islamic Revolution, maintains operatives in foreign embassies, charities, and religious and cultural institutions to enhance ties globally,” Admiral Faller added.
It is crucial to review Tehran’s “pattern of penetration” in Latin America.
During his testimony on March 18, 2015, before the U.S. House Of Representatives Committee On Foreign Affairs, Joseph M. Humire, co-Author “Iran’s Strategic Penetration Of Latin America,” revealed damning information about the Iranian regime’s presence in Latin America.
Mr. Humire said that “the Islamic Republic maintains Latin America as a strategic priority for its global positioning and has become increasingly important. The Islamic Republic seeks to build on its momentum over the last decade and expand its operations to move past its typical associations with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA).”
According to Humire, Tehran’s pattern of penetration has four essential layers. These layers begin at “an informal level through cultural exchange, which transitions to more formal diplomatic relations that allows for greater economic cooperation.”
The political posturing and numerous accords and agreements, most of which do not come to fruition, “allows the Ayatollahs to create the political and economic cover necessary to insert more operatives, create front companies, establish backdoor channels with the host government, and ultimately carve out spaces for their military and paramilitary officers to enter the region in support of the Islamic Republic’s strategic interests.”
Humire testified that Tehran used “its cultural penetration to gain access to prominent individuals within the Islamic and indigenous communities throughout the region.”
“Once such contact is established, Iran bolsters its diplomatic presence, as is the case in Venezuela and Cuba, or establishes a new embassy, such as has occurred in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. In Bolivia, it has been reported that there are no fewer than 145 accredited Iranian diplomats living in the Andean nation. A number that far outweighs their overt interest or commerce with the Plurinational state,” he added.
The regime has increased the number of its embassies across Latin America. Once these embassies are established, Tehran builds several mosques and so-called “Islamic” cultural centers, acting as its eyes and ears on the ground.
The mullahs’ embassies handle their network of espionage and terrorism in those countries. Under the pretext of commercial and cultural exchange, these emissaries of terror serve as conduits for procurement and illegal acquisition activities while serving as bases for Tehran’s operatives who immerse themselves in local communities.
In other words, as Humire put it, Tehran’s “commercial and diplomatic presence establishes the plausible deniability necessary to build its capacity for the final layer of its penetration, which is a military and paramilitary presence, unprecedented in the region.”
This method has allowed the regime to infiltrate several intelligence and defense services of countries or co-opt their services for its benefit. Sadly, the vast corruption in Latin America enables Tehran’s ability to move through various layers of strategic penetration in different countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Hezbollah in Latin America
Hezbollah has been acting more openly, implementing the Iranian regime’s strategy in Latin America. The group is not only involved in terrorism but also in organized crime and drug trafficking.
The “South of the Border, A Threat From Hezbollah” report by Matthew Levitt in 2013 underscores “that Hezbollah has a strong presence in the countries comprising the Tri-Border Area. Activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking have been identified in Puerto Iguazú, Foz do Iguaçu, and Ciudad del Este in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The authorities found that Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad, a Hezbollah militant from this zone, has sent more than $50 million to Hezbollah since 1995.”
According to Small Wars Journal, “Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America dates back to the group’s foundation.”
“An essential factor in the establishment of Hezbollah cells was the flow of Lebanese migrants arriving at the Tri-Border Area (TBA) connecting Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay during the 1960s and 1970s. The multi-generational diaspora and zones that facilitated trade for Lebanese migrants enabled Hezbollah militants to infiltrate the subcontinent and carry out their activities,” the report reads.
Once it consolidated its presence in the Tri-Border, Hezbollah found a safe haven to further extend its malign activities: Venezuela.
When Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, a relationship began between him and Hezbollah, allowing Hezbollah to build a vast network to carry out illicit activities, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling.
According to Small Wars Journal investigation, “Hezbollah established a crime structure in Venezuela that operates through compartmentalized, familial clans, such as Nassereddine, Saleh y Rada, that embed into the regime-controlled illicit economy and the regime’s political apparatus and bureaucracy. Hezbollah has control in zones such as Margarita Island, where they operate freely.”
According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2020, “Venezuela’s minister of industries and national production, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah—the son of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother—has been the point man in expanding commercial and military ties with Iran.”
“Venezuela is also accused of handing out false identities to Middle Eastern operatives so that they can travel around the region as Venezuelans,” the WSJ report adds.
Hezbollah earns significant profits through illicit business and smuggling in the tri-border area and other free trade zones in the region. Yet, in recent years and under the shadow of Western governments’ inaction, Hezbollah’s activities have spread far beyond these well-known hotspots and include not only logistics and financing but also terrorist operations. Through Hezbollah, the Iranian regime has created a robust intelligence network spanning the southern half of the Western Hemisphere.
According to a report by Institute for National Strategic Studies Strategic Perspectives in June 2021, “The regime has successfully created a network of echo chambers with Russia, Vene- zuela, and the BCJE to push the anti-U.S. message far beyond the confines of any single member of the network.”
“HispanTV, teleSUR, and RT en Español—along with hundreds of interconnected Web sites and social media accounts across multiple platforms—are the main pillars of their current ef- forts. The small corps of superspreaders are key messengers in disseminating misinformation by reporting across the main outlets to amplify messages to portray Iran, Russia, and the BJCE as enlightened revolutionary forces fighting to end U.S. imperialism,” the report adds.
Hezbollah’s Connection to Organized Crime
An example of Hezbollah’s connections to transnational organized crime is the network run by Aymad Joumaa, a Lebanese national who leads a global money laundering and drug trafficking organization.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which announced sanctions on Joumaa in January 2011, this individual coordinates “the shipments and sale of cocaine in Latin America before moving the funds through a Lebanese exchange house. Ultimately, he allegedly laundered the money through several used car dealerships and corporate entities that he controlled in Benin and Congo. OFAC claimed that the scheme generated more than $200 million in profits every month.”
The Iranian regime, through Hezbollah, has repeatedly attempted to cooperate with transnational organized crime groups in Latin America. The most egregious example of that strategy was the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in 2011.
In October 2011, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York charged two Iranian men with attempting to recruit members of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
The plot’s mastermind was Golam Shakuri, a Quds Force official based in Iran. Shakuri supervised Manssour Arbabsiar, an Iranian American dual national, to hire members of a drug cartel and offer to pay them to assassinate the ambassador. The plot failed as Arbabsiar unintentionally approached a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Administration Agency, who posed as a cartel member and ostensibly agreed to carry out the bombing.
Hezbollah’s active presence in Latin America paved the way for Tehran to maintain its terrorist cells throughout the region, which ultimately enabled them to wreak havoc there.
A van bomb attack brought down the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in 1994, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more. This tragedy did not form overnight.
The Iranian regime first sent Mohsen Rabbani, an intelligence operative, to Buenos Aires on August 27, 1983, almost eleven years before the AMIA attack. Rabbani not only laid the blueprint for how to carry out terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere but also for covering it up.
As the leader of the at-Tauhid mosque, Rabbani began to search for potential targets for Iranian-backed terror attacks. During later testimony, three of Rabbani’s students at the at-Tauhid mosque remarked that he had told them in 1990 to “export the revolution” and that “we are all Hezbollah.” That planning ultimately led to the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, killing 23 people, as well as the AMIA Bombing.
According to the late Dr. Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor of AMIA bombings who was later assassinated, Rabbani spent several years as the Imam of the At-Tahuid Mosque in Buenos Aires, where he recruited, proselytized, and created an intelligence system that would report to the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires and through it to Tehran.
A report by the Wall Street Journal on January 12, 2020, underscores that “There is reason to believe, for example, that the 2015 murder of Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was an Iranian-backed operation. Nisman had been investigating an alleged Argentine coverup of Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing. On the eve of an Argentine congressional hearing, where he was scheduled to deliver his findings, he was found dead in his apartment.”
Another Iranian operative who continued Rabbani’s modus operandi was his closest cohort, Michael Seaforth, better known by his Muslim name Abdul Kadir.
Kadir was a Guyanese politician arrested in 2007 in Trinidad and Tobago in connection with a plot to blow up jet-fuel supply tanks and pipeline at the JFK International Airport in New York City.
Kadir developed an intelligence structure in Guyana and the Caribbean at the behest of Tehran, which was akin to Rabbani’s network in Argentina. Kadir founded and directed the Islamic Information Center of Guyana. Therefore, he gained tremendous influence over the Islamic communities in Guyana and neighboring countries, through the Caribbean, and into diaspora groups in the U.S.
According to Humire, “It was Kadir’s long arm to the diaspora of the Afro-Guyanese in Queens, New York City who worked at the JFK International Airport that helped gain access to the target of this thwarted terrorist attack.”
Kadir was a native Latin American, operating as Tehran’s agent of influence. Over time, Tehran has recruited several thousand agents of influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, training them not just in the Iranian city of Qom but also in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Brazil.
These agents operate under the pretext of cultural and religious promotion activities to provide operational and logistical support for terrorism.
Kadir was a highly respected Shi’a Muslim but coordinated with radical Sunni Muslims associated with the Trinidad-based Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM) Islamic terrorist group. “This is important since the majority of the Muslim population in Latin America is Sunni, providing Iran and Hezbollah increased avenues of approach to the region,” Humire testified before the U.S House in this regard.
Weeks after the Iranian regime’s foiled terrorist attack in Kenya, Colombia’s daily El Tiempo revealed another Iranian failed terror plot. This revelation once again showed how Latin America has turned into the Iranian regime’s field of operations.
According to El Tiempo, an Iranian known as Assadi recruited two prison inmates while sharing a cell in Dubai sometime between 2017 and 2021. The three were serving time for prior convictions.
Once released in March 2021, the two agents traveled to Colombia, spying on two Israeli businessmen and their families, identifying their homes, places of work, and routine movements.
According to the local authorities, these agents had hired local hitmen to carry out an assassination, but Colombian intelligence foiled their plots.
It was later revealed that Tehran’s terrorists reportedly sought to target U.S. diplomats as well, noting that Colombian authorities had arrested and expelled two Hezbollah operatives — likely the same two guns-for-hire recruited in Dubai.
The regime’s presence in Colombia should come as no surprise, as the country hosts a large Iranian propaganda operation, shares a border with Venezuela, and is home to a strong Lebanese Shiite community with a history of involvement in terrorism financing. Colombia also has commercial, diplomatic, and security ties with the United States and Israel, offering a target-rich environment for the Iranian regime.
The facts above only show the tip of the iceberg and the Iranian regime’s increasing threat in South America. The current U.S. administration has engaged in a dialogue with the mullahs’ regime, opting to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet, this alarming information clarifies that there is no time to make mistakes, as mullahs are increasing their presence in the United States backyard.
Since its foundation in 1979, Iran’s ruling theocracy has tried to wreak havoc across the globe or export its domestic crises in order to hold its fragile grip on power at home. The mullahs have been squandering national wealth on terrorism, leaving ordinary Iranians in absolute poverty and misery.
Negotiations with the terrorist regime in Tehran only emboldens it to continue its malign activities. The recent foiled terror plots in Africa, Europe, and South America are testaments that Tehran considers terrorism as leverage and exploits the current weak approach by Western governments to continue its malign activities.
In order to neutralize the regime’s threats, the world community should maintain sanctions on the regime and increase its pressure on the ruling theocracy. The only way to stop Tehran’s global terrorism is to bring it to its knees by exercising a decisive policy.