Latin America is the Next Frontier for Iran and Hezbollah

BY RICK LIPMAN 

The expansion of Iranian influence and Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism are evergreen topics of concern in the U.S. security community, but the Islamic Republic’s role as global troublemaker is usually viewed through the lens of failed states and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In addition to its indirect involvements in the Syrian, Yemeni, and other crises, however, Iran has been working for years to expand its reach – both independently and through its proxy Hezbollah – throughout Latin America.

Hezbollah is currently active in Paraguay and the Tri-Border Area, with a U.S. federal seizure of assets in 2010 destined for terror fronts in the region highlighting the extent of illegal activities in the area:

“[The shopping mall] Galeria Page, located in Ciudad del Este, serves as a Hezbollah fundraising source in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, according to a Treasury Department press statement issued in December 2006. It is considered the central headquarters for Hezbollah members in the region”[1].

Hezbollah operatives were arrested in Peru in 2014[2] [3], and in 2016, Hezbollah officially registered as a political party in Peru’s Abancay province.[4]

In the 2012 SOUTHCOM Posture Statement, General Douglas Fraser noted that “[I]n South America, funding for Hizballah is raised through licit avenues, such as charitable donations, and illicit means, including trafficking in drugs, counterfeit, and pirated goods”[5].

While Hezbollah often acts independently, it is the primary proxy arm of Iran and the dual expansion of influence of both the armed group and the Iranian government in the region pose similar threats that affect similar interests. In addition to Hezbollah’s trafficking and licit legal goods operations, Gen. Fraser described how Iran has succeeded in establishing ties with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba[6], also noting that:

“Iran also propagates its agenda through its thirty-six Shi’a cultural centers”, one of which “is run by the radical cleric Moshen Rabbani, currently on the Interpol Red List for involvement in the 1994 bombings of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. Rabbani oversees several media outlets and has recruited students from the region to study in Iran. We take Iranian activity in the hemisphere seriously and we monitor its activities closely.”[7]

Alberto Nisman, the prosecuting attorney investigating the 1994 bombing of  Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was found dead in his apartment in January 2015 the day before he was expected to hand down an indictment of the Kirchner government for its involvement in covering up Iranian involvement in the plot.[8] While the official cause of his death remains elusive – authorities never ruled it a homicide – thousands of pages of documents amassed by Nisman, both open source and classified, outline compelling Iranian plots to consolidate its interests in Argentina, and Latin America as a whole.

Nisman had a long track record of proving disruptive to Iran’s efforts on the continent. In 2006, he indicted eight former Iranian officials, along with a Lebanese citizen, and in 2007 compelled Interpol to issue warrants for several of them.[9] Even barring Iran’s subsequent refusal to cooperate, Nisman proved himself capable of causing trouble for the regime. He continued to build a legal case, releasing a 500-page report in 2013 outlining how Iran had been cultivating financial and physical support in the region for over thirty years.[10] An August 2016 interview between The Cipher Brief and the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy’s Matthew Levitt described Hezbollah and Iran as “hyperactive” in Latin America, outlining the myriad fundraising operations, including narcotics trafficking, that the groups had become involved with over the last several decades.[11]

Latin America has also often served as a back door for the Iranian regime to evade sanctions and acquire weapons and weapon technologies, as Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Emanuele Ottolenghi noted in The Hill last year:

“Iran has long relied on Latin America to evade Western sanctions, including, critically, on ballistic missiles technology. Now sanctions are gone and Iran’s missile activity no longer banned, but Tehran continues to use America’s backyard to develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.”[12]

The Wall Street Journal notes that in December 2014, shortly before Alberto Nisman’s death, Iran’s top priority was ending UN sanctions so that it could break ground with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multi-party “nuclear deal” treaty brokered under the Obama administration.

“This meant securing legitimacy via successful negotiations with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Nisman was about to get in the way. In a safe-deposit box in Buenos Aires some months after Nisman’s death, investigators discovered a document signed by him and dated December 2014. It is an appeal to Argentine authorities to formally request that the U.N. invoke its charter and intervene in the AMIA case.”[13]

Had the UN invoked its charter, as it had previously in Libya and Sudan[14], Iran would not have been able to proceed with the negotiations.

While many analysts believe that Hezbollah’s focus on shoring up monetary support and supply lines remain its focus in the region, making it unlikely to attempt attacks on U.S. interests or soil anytime soon[15], the depths to which it has become embroiled in the region along with the diversified nature of its support warrants concern. The group continues to grow wealthier, more confident, and more capable of carrying out attacks against Jewish and Israeli interests worldwide, as has been its modus operandi. It is likely to return to form in the future, poised to carry out operations in South America as well as in the Middle East but also, perhaps, within the U.S. if the regional calculus changes.

Likewise, Nisman’s report identifying potential Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago[16] highlights the potential to work across borders and without serious challenges. Believed to have grown more aggressive in overseas operations in 2006, after a dispute with Iran over funding, Hezbollah has continued to expand, and is known to “have cased the U.S. embassy in Paraguay’s capital of Ascunción [sic]” as well as having “colluded with al Qaeda to plot attacks on U.S. and Jewish targets in the region”.[17]

The expanding roles of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America have continued their slow creep for decades, and with the lifting of sanctions against Iran and explosive fundraising growth achieved by Hezbollah, they are likely to increase their activities in Latin America over the coming years. Their tactics have, after all, proven quite successful.

Image source: alarabiya.net

About the Author 

Rick Lipman is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.