Iran’s increasing involvement in South American and Central American countries has worried some observers who fear that the country may be “exporting” fundamentalist religion in these regions.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was, according to many analysts, the birth of modern Islamic fundamentalism, an ideology (or series of interrelated ideologies) which has generated one of the most profound ideological crises of the 21st century so far.
The fact that many ISIL recruits are not from Muslim families and come from a wide variety of backgrounds suggests that radicalization transgresses religious barriers and may be driven by such forces as social ostracization, poverty, and issues of identity. The political instability, social issues, and economic woes of many Latin American countries today, therefore, present a worrying open door through which religious fundamentalism may enter.
To understand Iran’s ideological objectives in Latin America, we spoke to Sofey Saidi, Adjunct Professor at the University of Baltimore specializing in the Middle East & Global Politics in the School of Public and International Affairs. She also teaches courses on Ethnic and Cultural Conflict at the university’s Center for Negotiations and Conflict Management.
In addition to her Middle Eastern roots, Dr. Saidi has vast experience living & conducting research in Central America’s war zones beginning with the turbulent civil war era in the 1970s-80s. As a scholar and conflict resolution practitioner, her mastery of regional cultures, languages and politics spans many diverse regions and continents.
- What is the ideological reasoning behind Iran’s attempt to export “Islamic revolution” in South America? What does Iran stand to gain by doing this?
A: Since 1979, the theocracy in Iran has conducted a deliberate foreign policy of penetration and influence in Central and South America under the banner of “export of revolution”. Iran’s two-pronged approach has been to actively affect influence and gain power via Hezbollah in the Middle East and through the Assad clan in Syria, and in the Latin American region via direct and indirect proxies.
In terms of the ideological factor, Khomeini’s distorted version of religion, namely theocratic regime (Velayat Faghih) is used as a tool for recruitment. The benefit for the number-one state sponsor of terrorism [the Iranian regime] in the world is to further its objectives of destabilization and terrorism and gain certain concessions upon which I will elaborate further.
- What potential for the growth of religious fundamentalism exists in Latin America? What preexisting vulnerabilities is Iran exploiting?
A: Unfortunately, the high levels of corruption, certain economic challenges as well as weak institutions prevalent throughout the region have facilitated Iran’s ability to successfully penetrate the region.
- What is the relation between the economic and ideological aspects of Tehran’s presence in Latin America? And how could Iran’s actions further destabilize politically fragile countries?
A: The important factors such as economy and politics as well as culture are interrelated. Why are they significant? Precisely because the Iranian government has over the past 30 years laid the groundwork for strategic penetration of Latin America. In fact, one of the scholars who has researched this topic is Joseph M. Humire. His book is called “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America”. He purposely uses the term “strategic penetration” because “strategic” implies that Iran has had a plan for the region, and “penetration” means that they are executing this plan through covert methods.
Humire, has conducted extensive field research in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru. He believes that at a tactical level, Iran uses its cultural penetration to gain access to prominent individuals within the indigenous communities throughout the region. The goal is to exploit their wealth and/or political connections. After establishing contact, Iran increases its diplomatic presence, such as in Venezuela and Cuba, in other cases, Iran establishes a new embassy, such as in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. In Bolivia, there are 145 accredited Iranian diplomats. This number is far more than their official needs in the countries.
As such, Iran has a wide array of diplomatic, commercial and clandestine networks stretching across Latin America. It has honorary membership in Latin America’s club known as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). The connection with ALBA, provides Iran with benefits in the areas of intelligence, military, and other security-related exercises. It is not a co-incidence that these benefits work within Iran’s regional agenda, which includes obtaining military technologies and gaining access to the international banking system.
According to Humire, this form of strategic maneuvering has enabled the Iranian government to grow exponentially from six embassies prior to 2004, to close to double that (11 total) as of 2009. Once Iran establishes a series of mosques and Islamic cultural centers, they begin to proliferate in the surrounding countries and expand their local connections in Latin America. Under the guise of commercial and cultural exchange, these embassies serve as conduits for procurement and acquisition activities. Furthermore, they serve as bases for Iranian intelligence operatives who immerse themselves into local societies. It is important to note that because Iran has a formal commercial and diplomatic presence, it provides them with a cover in order to fulfill what Humire calls their final layer of ‘penetration’, a military and paramilitary presence.
Lastly, I should mention that many experts have relied on findings of Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Argentina, who was murdered a day before he was to testify before the Argentine congress about a conspiracy to whitewash Iran’s involvement in that terrorist attack.
As reported by the New York Times (6/19/16), Mr. Nisman had produced more than 1,500 pages of open-source reporting on Iran and Hezbollah and another 1,500 pages of classified material that is still not public on the AMIA attack.
Therefore, there exists irrefutable evidence of Iran’s penetration and influence in Latin America at cultural, economic and political levels.
As for the question of Iran’s involvement causing political fragility? Yes, to the extent a country is influenced via proxy penetration, this means that its political and economic integrity is compromised. The territorial independence, democratic decision making power, should not be corrupted by providing concessions to an external government, especially a theocracy that is No.1 state sponsor of terrorism.