Is Iran establishing Extremist centers in Latin America, and encouraging an Anti-U.S. stance?

Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have help the world’s attention, while the country has been busy cementing its relations with Shiite communities in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Latin America.

While Venezuela’s small Muslim community faced a sectarian rift,  several Peruvian media outlets warned against the Iran-backed groups in the country.  In July, a Middle Eastern media outlet, Asharq al-Awsat, reported “young Peruvians coming mostly from the mountainous region of Abancay where Iran has lately exerted its efforts, convinced 20 young Peruvians to visit Tehran and receive training on Shiism before being sent back home for advocacy.”  This report also claimed that the beginnings of a political party under the name of “Hezbollah Branch in Peru.”  Peruvian media outlets recently warned of the danger of the groups’ presence, their terrorist ideologies, and the suspicion that Iran may use them to extend the ideology of the Iranian Revolution.

The U.S. uncovered  a joint plan between the Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in 2011, proving that Iran had been active in Latin America.

“In the recent years, Iran has been establishing close trade, financial, and cultural ties with Latin American countries. In addition to Iran’s long-standing partnership with Venezuela and increasingly close relationship with Bolivia, Tehran has also expanded its ties with traditional U.S. allies like Argentina. Almost twenty years after the devastating terrorist attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (AMIA) in 1994, which was allegedly planned and executed by Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, Argentina and Iran have established a truth commission,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies reported in October.  They added, “Cuba is the most recent and unlikely addition to Iran’s growing network of missionary centers. In the last three years, Iran has established a Shiite cultural center and a mosque in Havana that is actively recruiting and converting Cubans. Many of its converts have already traveled to Iran, including one who is training to become the first Cuban-born Shiite cleric.”

An Iranian delegation of 120 members, joined by Jawad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, paid an official visit to Latin America last August. They began their journey in Cuba, and traveled through Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, ending in Venezuela.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian President, visited the region five times between 2005 and 2012.

Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s current Deputy Foreign Minister, spoke about the recent visit, “the trip would be the beginning of a new chapter in relations between Iran and Latin America.”  He credited the the nuclear deal for Chile’s decision to reopen its embassy in Tehran after 36 years, and after international sanctions were lifted.  He added that Chile has appointed a charge d’affaires and will soon appoint an ambassador. 

He accused Israel and others of attempting to damage relations between Iran and the continent. He called accusations of military cooperation between Iran and Latin American countries ‘ridiculous’,  and said the post-nuclear deal will have “an economic aspect.”

Al Monitor reported last August that Takht-Ravanchi said the Islamic Republic considers Venezuela a friendly country. However, regarding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit, the Foreign Policy Initiative wrote, “Iran always viewed its presence in Latin America not as an economic opportunity, but as a military and ideological imperative. The region, with its many anti-American regimes, offers Tehran a safe haven that enables it to export its radical vision of the Islamic Revolution to America’s doorstep and simultaneously fund its global military adventurism. In this sense, the particulars of Zarif’s itinerary matter less than the overarching reality of Iran’s pervasive regional influence that his visit symbolizes and reflects.”

Jewish communities in Latin American countries are worried about Iran’s growing influence, because Tehran allegedly sponsored terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentina Jewish Mutual Aid Center in 1994.