Small Wars Journal

Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America: Consequences for U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security

Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America: Consequences for U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security

Magdalena Defort and William Preston McLaughlin

According to our Islamic point of view, Latin America is for us and the international world, a virgin area, that unfortunately, till now, its huge potential has not been taken into account by the Islamic people of Iran…we have a solid support against the imperialism and Zionism intrigues being an important aid in favor of our presence in the area. — Mohsen Rabbani, Iranian Cultural Attaché in Buenos Aires during 1994 AMIA attack[1]

This essay explores why Latin America is of paramount strategic importance for Iran, and what factors or events gave Iran access to the region so it could pursue its classic rampant penetration of other nations’ governments and cultural institutions. It explores how Iran’s proxy power forces operate by exploiting existing regional weaknesses — such as organized crime networks — to provide Iran with the “cover” needed to pursue its strategic policy in the Americas.  It also examines the Iranian government’s modus operandi in various Latin American nations, including illicit economic activity, issuing fraudulent documents, smuggling illegal material, espionage, and subversive activities including the armed training of subversive groups. It also provides insights into the Bolivarian Alliance — Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) — a regional organization in Latin America, and describes how Iran uses it to profoundly destabilize the continent and foment political, security, and economic crises. Finally, this paper demonstrates the seriously dangerous nature of Iran’s destabilization policy and explores how nations in the Americas should defend themselves against Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Introduction:  The Monroe Doctrine

In December 1823, President James Monroe told Congress that the New World and the Old World had different and distinct spheres of influence and any attempt by European powers to oppress or control any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States.[2] This position came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. It has been part of American politics since that date and is supported in the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) today. During Monroe’s administration, former Spanish and Portuguese colonies were gaining independence from their Colonial Empires, and the Doctrine’s intent was to prevent the New World from becoming a surrogate battleground for European powers.

The Contemporary Islamic Threat

Two centuries later, history has come full circle. In 2017, Senator Marco Rubio spoke to the U.S. Senate about the threat to national and regional security posed by the extra–hemispheric power called the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). According to Rubio, between 2008 and 2012, fraudulent passports, national IDs and birth certificates were issued by the Venezuelan Embassy in Baghdad to foreign nationals with ties to terrorist group, including 173 people from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. The individual who uncovered this information was Misael López Soto (lawyer and legal attaché in the Venezuelan Embassy in Baghdad), a Venezuelan national assigned to the Venezuelan Embassy in Iraq in 2015. Soto became a whistleblower and revealed the identity of several of these potential terrorists.[3] He also discovered that Venezuelan Vice–President Tareck El Aissami, a strong candidate to be the future leader of his country, facilitated the issue of hundreds of Venezuelan passports to suspected Hezbollah members.[4]

Despite the fact that these activities were revealed in a CNN documentary and a handful of Iranians using the fraudulent passports were arrested, there is no substantial evidence that the Venezuelan government intended to stop its Baghdad embassy’s wrongdoing. Senator Rubio’s exposure of how a Latin American country could facilitate the movement of terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and Latin America, and how these groups have allegedly interfered in Venezuela’s democratic process by influencing its elections, show how effectively Iran and its proxy forces have gained the cooperation of some Latin America governments.

Although the Middle East presence in Latin America dates back to the early 1900s, the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power firmly established the Islamic Republic’s presence in the region. Since then, Iran has used every agency within its borders to help extend Iranian tentacles into the political, cultural, economic, and military life of Latin America. Iranian operatives have even infiltrated existing Latin American criminal networks and now operate freely within them. All of this activity follows the “Pattern of Penetration” model put forth by Ilan Berman and Joseph M. Humire.[5]

Background: Regional Context

To understand Iran’s strategic penetration of Latin America, it is important to know that, since the late Twentieth Century, the continent shifted from being a region of closed and locally controlled economies to being a participant in global markets, a member of bilateral and multilateral agreements, and a partner in an array of economic, cultural, and military exchanges with the world at large. In fact, these changes contributed to the decline of U.S. hegemony in Latin America and enabled players from outside the Western Hemisphere — including Iran, China and Russia — to enter the region. Iran began to increase its presence in Latin America after 1980, when the Shah was deposed and the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic regime came to power. Since then, Iran has penetrated the governmental structure of many Latin American nations, especially the nations of the already left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saint Kitts, and Nevis), and this is not only unconventional but also very dangerous.

Background: The Iran Offensive

Iran’s revolutionary intentions are officially outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

This basic aspiration (cultural, economic, social and political) was made explicit by the nature of the great Islamic Revolution of Iran, as well as the course of the Muslim people’s struggle, from its beginning until victory, as reflected in the decisive and forceful slogans raised by all segments of the populations.[6]

Revolution is only a part of Iran’s plan for Latin America. Its hidden aim is to destabilize the region, subjugate all the Latin American nations, and create a crisis that will be perceived as a threat to the national security of the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini said in one of his speeches in 1978, “As long as the criminal hands of the oil–hungry superpowers are at work in our country, the gates of happiness and freedom will remain closed to us.”[7]

Iran wants to target its adversary, the United States, from a seat of power in Latin America, and the left-leaning Latin American so-called democracies are its complicit facilitators. The Bolivarian Alliance–ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América established by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s president Fidel Castro in 2004), a regional block with socialist affinities that oppose U.S. imperialism that opened the gate to this vulnerable region and let in Iran’s theocratic regime with its strongly rooted revolutionary Islamic ideology and unconventional military tactics. The weaknesses of most Latin American countries — and ALBA members in particular — are the corruption and violence that result from organized crime, and these activities have been very effectively exploited by Iran.

To pursue its revolution, both within and beyond its boundaries, Iran built up a strong and complex organization of irregular forces that operated independently from its regular military. They financed these organizations and other aspects of the revolution with proceeds from criminal activities such as drug trafficking and the smuggling of material goods, both of which are common practices for revolutionary movements.

Iran’s Ideological Army

Iran’s new regime had to be protected against destructive forces. In May of 1979, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, established the Sepâh-e Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb-e Eslâmi or Army of the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC), modeled on the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC–14 AD). They swore loyalty to the principle of the velayat–e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent). In Rome, these legions were a power unto themselves, installing and removing emperors.[8]

Since it was established, the IRGC has played a pivotal role in the protection, consolidation and spread of the Islamic Revolution around the world. This powerful multitasking force is still engaged in many operations — espionage, counterintelligence, assassinations — intended to keep revolutionary principles alive within and beyond the IRI. The mission of Iran’s army is based on Islamic religious ideology. The Guards are responsible not only for safeguarding the IRI’s frontiers, but also for fighting a Holy War (Jihad) and struggling to extend the supremacy of God’s Law (Islam) in the world.[9]

The Revolutionary Guard has a very complex structure, with several branches of irregular military organizations, such as the Quds Force (Jerusalem Force or QF), which was created in 1990. The QF conducts intelligence operations and small wars outside Iran and carries out terrorist attacks beyond Iran’s borders. It is an elite group. QF members first enroll in the IRCG, then graduate to the QF’s ranks.[10] The QF carries out Iran’s foreign policy and supervises its relationships with its surrogate groups and terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah.[11]  It also oversees the Guard’s training, the Guard’s finances, and the guidance of Islamic militants who carry out some of the group’s specialized violent activity, such as suicide bombings and assassinations. While business, politics, nuclear programs and defense programs within Iran are controlled by the IRCG the QF demonstrates Iran’s power abroad. The side-by-side existence of these two armies — regular forces (Artesh) and revolutionary forces (Pastaran) — reflect the revolutionary/clerical dualism that permeates all of Iran`s state institutions.[12]

The Guards can always be trusted to make extraordinary sacrifices for the Revolution because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with Islamic revolutionary ideas, and this makes them the ideal troops to suppress anti-regime demonstrators. Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr, declared that, “In the countries where Iran conducts terrorist operations, most of the embassy’s members are Iranian intelligence service agents, VEVAK, or from the Revolutionary Guards.”[13]

From 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected the president of Iran, the QF increased its power. Members of the QF occupied the most important posts in government and displaced the clergy from their positions. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela pursued a similar militarization policy in 2009 as an expression of his “new geometry of power.” The traditional IRGC supported Ahmadinejad’s leadership in 2009 because electing the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami would have been unacceptable to these fundamentalist Muslims.

Ahmadinejad’s election was essential for Iran to restart its nuclear project, which Iranian leaders saw as part of the Revolution and essential to winning the Holy War. The IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and Armed Forces Logistics played leading roles in this top-secret project. As Mohsen Rezai (senior military officer and conservative politician) explained, “Iran needs to arm itself with anything needed [for] victory, and we need to have all the technical improvements in our possession to even build bombs, if and when needed.”[14]

During Ahmadinejad’s administration, the nuclear program and Iran’s proxy activities were a focal point of the Iranian agenda in Latin America.

Iran’s Proxy Policy Towards Latin America

Proxy wars are the product of a relationship between benefactors, who are state or non-state actors external to the dynamic of an existing conflict but who want to gain a political foothold in a country, and the benefactors’ chosen proxies, who may or may not be part of the original conflict. The proxies receive the benefactor’s weapons, training, and funding and end up representing the benefactor’s interests in their country if they are native groups, or promoting the benefactors’ agendas if they are non-native groups.[15] Using local proxies is beneficial for a nation trying to interfere in another nation’s politics because the covert nation can get excellent intelligence information through these local groups and remain behind the scenes, avoiding the sort of nationalistic backlash that so often accompanies foreign intervention. If the proxy is a native guerrilla force, they often know the terrain very well and can blend in with the local population more easily than foreigners.[16]

One of the most important Iranian proxy forces is Hezbollah (the Party of God), created by radical Shi’ite clerics in Lebanon in 1983. Hezbollah has close ties to the clerics in Iran. From the outset, Hezbollah was in charge of social work to gain new followers and create trust among Shi’ite Lebanese residents and was strongly promoted by Ahmadinejad as an example of “purity and reliance on God’s will.”[17]

Ahmadinejad decided to use Hezbollah as Iran’s proxy group in South America because its Shiite Lebanese background links this terrorist group with a large, deeply settled Lebanese population in the Tri–border area of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. South American Lebanese citizens who accepted Hezbollah created local “sleeper cells” that were meant to compliment Iranian embassies in the region and were part of the Iranian infiltration plan. The mission of the sleeper cells was to mingle into society after learning its language; and in case of necessity, they change into agents, through local mosques. Sleeper cells facilitated not only the illicit modus operandi, but also orchestrated and carried out attacks in the Tri–Border area.[18]

Charitable foundations channel funds to Hezbollah members working both at home and abroad, and this was also the case in South America. The resulting terrorist activity was intense. For instance, in 1992, Hezbollah sent a suicide bomber to the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina that caused 29 deaths and hundreds of injuries. On 18 July1994, again in Buenos Aires, Hezbollah bombed the AMIA Jewish Center, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. Eight Iranian officials, including Iran’s Defense Minister, were involved in these devastating terrorist attacks.[19]

Using proxy forces is only a part of Iran’s strategic policy in the region. It has sent the QF to South American to support South American guerrilla forces (adaptive adversaries such as terrorists, insurgents, and criminal networks as well as states will increasingly resort to irregular forms of warfare as effective ways to challenge conventional military powers. Advances in technology and other trends in the environment will render such irregular threats ever more lethal, capable of producing widespread chaos, and otherwise difficult to counter. These threats are enmeshed in the population and increasingly empowered by astute use of communications, cyberspace, and technology, such that their impact extends regionally and globally. Many of these conflicts are essentially contests for influence and legitimacy over relevant populations.[20]

Iran and Venezuela’s Holistic Military Strategy

To advance this plan, in April of 2009, Chávez met with Iran’s then Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, General Mohamed Reza Naqdi, then commander of the Basij, (Iran’s revolutionary military police created after the Green Revolution that operated internally) and other high-ranking Iranian military officials.[21] Because of its secrecy and sensitive military nature, the program has no official track record and was implemented under the cover of joint commercial ventures connected to the military industries of both Iran and Venezuela. This covert program was directly managed by the Iranian Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) and the IRGC.

Iran’s Footprint in Latin America

The Bolivarian Alliance, and Venezuela in particular, needed modern military technology, and Iran became their best investor. Between 2005 and 2010, under Chávez, Venezuela increased its military power at the same time that sanctions were imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union. This close relationship with Iran’s rogue regime (a term used by the President George W. Bush towards the regimes such as the North Korea, Cuba, Iran) was a deliberately provocative act on the part of Chávez; but no one knows why Hugo Chávez pursued the Bolivarian project, which was supposed to revive Simon Bolivar’s dream of the Gran Columbia, using the tactics of asymmetric warfare and the militia exclusively instead of using a standing army. Was it to mislead his armed forces that would never have accepted the presence of a foreign power in Venezuela and would have ousted him and his government, or was he thinking that a hybrid strategy would be more suitable for a twenty-first century military confrontation?

From the outset, Chávez, a military professional, would have carefully designed everything to challenge the United States. Despite the seeming contradictions of Chávez’s strategy — the promotion of guerrilla warfare as well as a secret project to create weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — these operations complement each other and support Chávez’s strategy to implement a new world order in the Americas.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Iran’s presence in Latin America is an imminent threat to peace and political stability in the Western Hemisphere because its forces interact with Latin America’s deeply rooted revolutionary ideology and various well-intentioned but flawed “liberation theology” social movements. Latin America has become a base for Iran’s asymmetric attacks on the United States and other Latin American countries, as well as a laboratory and warehouse for the Islamic Republic’s WMD programs and a haven for many illicit activities of its terror proxy, Hezbollah.

Iran’s presence in Latin America has been facilitated by the many chronic flaws Latin American countries have dealt with for decades: corruption, organized crime, and political violence. Latin America has become an incubator for Hezbollah cells that “are as good or better at explosive devices than ISIS…better at assassinations and developing assassination cells…They’re better at targeting, better at looking at things. Hezbollah is smart.”[22]

Iran’s four-decades old theocracy, supported by the powerful Islamic Praetorian Guard that is loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader, could create a dangerous military situation in response to perceived threats on the part of the United States. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani remarked, “Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”[23]

The withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and President Donald Trump’s recent Tweet about Iran have prompted the following response from Basij’s commander, Gholamhossein Gharibpour: “We will not give up on our revolutionary values and beliefs and we will stand against imperialists and tyrants, and those few who have fallen for this psychological warfare of this crazy president should know that he wishes the destruction of all of us. Our people and our armed forces will stand up to enemies and will not yield.”[24]

End Notes

N.B. This is an abridged version of  “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America: Consequences for U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security.” American Intelligence Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1, June 2018 is reprinted here with permission of the editor.

[1] Jordan Steckler, Iran’s Ideological Expansion, United Against Nuclear Iran, June 2018, https://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/sites/default/files/expansion/iran%27s_ideological_expansion_report.pdf.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Monroe Doctrine,” accessed 25 November 2018, https://www.britannica.com/event/Monroe-Doctrine.

[3] Marco Rubio, “Rubio warns of fraudulent Venezuelan passports sold to possible terrorists,” online video, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eo4Fd49wpmg, posted 10 February 2017.

[4] Victoria L. Henderson, Joseph M. Humire and Fernando D. Menéndez, Assessing the Immigration Security Threat of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, Center for a Free Secure Society, Future of North America, July 2014, https://www.securefreesociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CANADA_ON_GUARD_JUNE_20143.pdf.

[5] Ilan Berman and Joseph M. Humire (Eds.), Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America.  Lanham, CT: Lexington Books, 2014.

[6] Iran (Islamic Republic of)'s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989. Constitute Project, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iran_1989.pdf?lang=en.

[7] Ruhollah Khomeni and Hamid Algar (Trans.), Islam and Revolution. Writings and Declarations of Iman Khomeini. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981.

[8] Emanuelle Ottolenghi, “The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Washington, DC: Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 9 September 2011, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2011/09/09/the-pasdaran-inside-irans-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps/.

[9] “The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iranian Law and Government, Iran Chamber Society, n.d., http://www.iranchamber.com/government/laws/constitution.php.

[10] Steven O’Hern, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Threat Grows while America Sleeps. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Ottolenghi, “The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

[13] M. Mahtab and Alam Rizvi, “Understanding Iran’s Political and Military Institutions: An Indian Perspective”, IDSA Monograph Series, No 28, December 2013, https://idsa.in/system/files/monograph28.pdf.

[14] Jafarzadeh Alireza, The Iran Threat. President Ahmadinejad and the Comming Nuclear Crisis.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[15] Andrew Mumford, “Proxy Warfare and the Future of Conflict.” RUSI Journal. Vol. 158, No. 2, 29 April 2013, https://rusi.org/publication/rusi-journal/proxy-warfare-and-future-conflict.

[16] Daniel L. Byman, “Why Engage in Proxy War? A State’s Perspective.” Brookings, 21 May 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/05/21/why-engage-in-proxy-war-a-states-perspective/.

[17] Jafarzadeh, The Iran Threat. President Ahmadinejad and the Comming Nuclear Crisis.

[18] See Rex Hudson, Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. July 2003 (Revised December 2010), https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/TerrOrgCrime_TBA.pdf.

[19] U.S. Senate. Iran’s Influence and Activity in Latin America. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, Second Session, 16 February 2012.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/021612_Transcript_Irans%20Influence%20and%20Activity%20in%20Latin%20America.pdf.

[20] Jae Hun Lee, Peter S. Pedersen, and Chad M. Pillai, “Countering 21st Century Threats: The need for an increased Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational (JIIM) Approach to Irregular Warfare.” Joint Forces Quarterly (JFQ), 10 November 2014,  https://pure.fak.dk/files/5561513/Irregular_Warfare_in_the_21st_Century_Final.pdf.

[21] Joseph Humire, “HUMIRE: Iran propping up Venezuela’s repressive.” Washington Times, 17 March 2017, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/mar/17/humire-irans-basij-props-up-venezuelas-repressive-/.

[22] Adam Kredo, “Iranian-Backed ‘Sleeper Cell’ Militants Hibernating in U.S., Positioned for Attack.” Washington Free Beacon, 17 April 2018, https://freebeacon.com/national-security/iranian-backed-sleeper-cell-militants-hibernating-u-s-positioned-attack/.

[23] Krishnadev Calamur, “Is Trump Going to War with Iran?” The Atlantic. 23 July 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/07/trump-iran/565841/.

[24] Patrick Wintour and Saeed Kamali, “John Bolton backs Trump’s Iran threat: ‘They will pay a price.’” The Guardian, 23 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/23/trump-iran-latest-john-bolton-threat.

Further Reading

Dave Dilegge, Alma Keshavarz, and Robert J. Bunker (Eds.), Iranian and Hezbollah Hybrid Warfare Activities—A Small Wars Journal Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2016.

Alma Keshavarz, “Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America: A Look at the ‘Old TBA’ and the ‘New TBA.’” Small Wars Journal. 12 November 2015.

Max G. Manwaring, Latin America’s New Security Reality: Irregular Asymmetric Conflict and Hugo Chavez. Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. August 2007.

About the Author(s)

William Preston McLaughlin is a Colonel (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps. He holds a Master's in Military Studies from the USMC Command and Staff College; a Master's in Strategic Studies from the US Army War College; and an M.A. in American History from George Mason University. He is a Joint Qualified Officer with duty at the Joint Warfighting Center, and a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College. He currently works as an Adjunct Professor of National Security for the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security where he has been teaching Low Intensity Conflict and National Security. He previously served as a Faculty Adviser, Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps Security Force School, and on the staff and as Adjunct Faculty at The Citadel. 

Dr. Magdalena Defort served as an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and as a Research Fellow at the Center for a Free and Secure Society. She recently received a master’s degree in National Security from the David Morgan Graduate School of National Security. She previously served  as a Scholar/Researcher in Latin American security issues at the University of Miami, Coral Gables where she directed an interdisiplinary research group on Latin American issues.. She holds a Ph.D. from the Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and master’s degree from Universytet Wroclawski (Poland). She participated in post–doctoral studies at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (UNAM). Magdalena is the author of five books and various articles published in scholarly journals. Defort’s research interests include terrorism, drug trafficking, insurgencies, civil-military relations in Latin America and military collaborations in countering the new threats in the Americas.