The sudden death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, whose report proved Iranian involvement in the 1994 Buenos Aires bombings, has sparked renewed concern about Iran’s ties to Latin America. Over the last decade, the Islamic Republic has expanded its ties with a number of countries in the region, particularly Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia, whose ruling leftist parties view it as an ‘anti-imperialist’ power.
Some of these signs of increasing influence are open and legal, reflecting a normal improvement in relations- 17 new Iranian cultural centers and four new embassies have appeared in the region since 2005, and Bolivia and Venezuela have echoed Iranian positions on several key international issues, including the repeated conflicts in Gaza and the Syrian civil war.
Bolivian president Evo Morales has labeled Israel a “terrorist state”, severing diplomatic relations, while Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro praised Assad’s ‘reelection’ in 2014, sending his personal congratulations.
But these alliances go far beyond a similar stance on particular issues; Iran and its proxy Hezbollah increasingly view the region as a source of illegal but lucrative fundraising.
Under Hugo Chavez, ‘Margarita Island’ off the coast of Venezuela became “the principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas.” Ghazi Nasseredine, Venezuela’s ambassador to Syria, allegedly runs money-laundering campaigns from the island, raising funds for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah itself has become extensively involved in drug trafficking, particularly of cocaine; the Rand Corporation estimates these illicit activities provide “around $20 million a year” for Hezbollah.
Just as concerning is the fact that Hezbollah views Latin America as a potential source of recruits. Beginning in the 1990s, the Iranian cultural attaché in Argentina used his diplomatic status as a cover for “identifying and recruiting operatives throughout the region.”
This strategy included infiltrating mosques in Brazil and Chile, promoting the regime’s radical interpretation of Islam, and convincing young people- including recent converts to Islam- to go to Iran for military training. These local operatives pose a particular danger, enhancing Iran’s ability to carry out future attacks on Latin American soil.