‘Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must love the
tropics’, commented ironically The Miami Herald. He has spent more time in Latin America than President Bush. Since his inauguration in 2005, Iran’s foreign policy focus has shifted from Africa to Latin America in order to, as Ahmadinejad puts it, ‘counter lasso’ the US.
Iran’s Goals in Latin America
Farideh Farhi argues that while Iran’s increased
attention to Latin America as a region is a relatively new
development, its bilateral ties with some individual Latin American
nations are of long standing and relatively robust. Iran has shared
an ideological relationship with Cuba since the end of the Iran-Iraq
War, and a political relationship with Venezuela since their
co-founding of OPEC in the 1960s. The impetus behind these
long-standing bilateral relationships is three-fold:
Iran’s non-aligned position in foreign policy has compelled it to seek out countries with similar ideological outlooks.
US efforts to keep Iran in diplomatic and economic isolation have forced it to pursue an active foreign policy.
The election of a reformist President in 1997 made it possible for countries like Brazil to engage Iran with enough confidence to
withstand pressures from the US.
The shift to the left in many important Latin American countries in the first decade of the new millennium has allowed Iran to be more
successful in its attempt to improve relations with particular
countries. From Ahmadinejad’s point of view, ‘rather
than responding passively to the US attempt to isolate Iran
politically and economically and become the dominant player in the
Middle East region, Iran’s backyard, Iran should move
aggressively in the US’s own backyard as a means to rattle it
or at least make a point’.
What is Ahmadinejad Looking for in Latin America?
First, he is seeking Latin American support to counter US and European pressures to stop Iran from developing nuclear capabilities.
Venezuela and Cuba were, alongside Syria, the only three countries
that supported Iran’s nuclear programme in a February 2006 vote
at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.
Secondly, Ahmadinejad wants to strike back at the US in its own
hemisphere and possibly destabilise US-friendly governments in order to negotiate with Washington from a position of greater strength.
Third, Ahmadinejad's popularity at home is falling, and he may want to show his people that he is being welcomed as a hero abroad.
Since Ahmadinejad’s ascendancy to power, he has made three diplomatic tours to Latin America in search of an alliance of
‘revolutionary countries’. He visited Venezuela in July
2006, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador in January 2007, and Venezuela
and Bolivia in September 2007. Ahmadinejad had also hosted President
Chávez of Venezuela, President Ortega of Nicaragua, President
Morales of Bolivia and President Correa of Ecuador and is expecting the visit of Brazil’s President Lula da Silva in 2009.
The cornerstone of Ahmadinejad’s Latin America policy is the formation of an anti-American axis with Venezuela. During a July 2006
visit to Tehran, Chávez told a Tehran University crowd, ‘We
have to save humankind and put an end to the US empire’. When
Chávez again visited Tehran a year later Ahmadinejad and
Chávez used the visit to declare an ‘Axis of Unity’
against the US. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to further destabilise the neighbourhood
suggest that he is seeking a permanent Iranian presence on the US doorstep.
Both leaders are using their mutual embrace to overcome international isolation and sanctions. Both Tehran and Caracas have used their
petrodollar windfall to encourage states in Latin America to embark
on confrontational policies towards the US.
Using billions of Iranian dollars in aid and assistance, and a US$2 billion Iran/Venezuela programme to fund social projects in Latin
America, Ahmadinejad has worked to create an anti-American bloc with Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Iran’s Growing Presence in Latin America
During the International Conference on Latin America held in Tehran
in February 2007, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mehdi Mostafavi,
announced the opening of embassies in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador,
Nicaragua and Uruguay and a representative office in Bolivia, and
that a number of Latin American countries would open embassies in Iran.
Iran’s political and economic penetration of the continent in a short period of two-three years is indeed impressive.
According to Elodie Brun, both Venezuela and Iran are using oil as a political instrument to insert themselves internationally in a way
that both characterise as revolutionary. The Venezuelan President,
Hugo Chávez, and President Ahmadinejad embrace a rhetoric
emphasising autonomy and independence from the great powers,
primarily the US but also Europe, citing unity in the struggle
against imperialism and capitalism. Hostility to the US, and
particularly to the Bush Administration, is what most binds the
foreign policies of the two countries.
‘Here are two brother countries, united like a single fist’, Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, was quoted as saying in
Tehran. ‘Iran is an example of struggle, resistance, dignity,
revolution, strong faith’, Chávez told al-Jazeera. ‘We
are two powerful countries. Iran is a power and Venezuela is becoming
one. We want to create a bipolar world. We don’t want a single
power [that is, the US]...Despite the will of the world
arrogance [of the US], we [Iran and Venezuela] will stand by the
oppressed and deprived nations of the world’, Ahmadinejad
said. Thérèse Delpech, a French analyst, has noted that
Ahmadinejad's ‘flamboyant style’ is similar to that of
his Venezuelan colleague.
Some observers consider that Latin America’s willingness to embrace Iran indicates how far US prestige has fallen in the region.
Chávez has emerged as ‘the godfather and relationship
manager’, striving to draw in this embrace other allies such as
Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. He is providing Iran with an entry
into Latin America, vowing to ‘unite the Persian Gulf and the
Caribbean’ and recently gave Iran observer status in his
leftist trade-pact group known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the
Iran has become the second-largest investor in Venezuela, after the US. The first ‘anti-imperialist cars’ from a joint
venture (Venirauto) have now reached Venezuela’s roads, with the first batch
earmarked for army officers. The 4,000 tractors produced annually in
Ciudad Bolivar have a symbolic value as agents of revolutionary
change. Most are given or leased at a discount in Venezuela to socialist cooperatives that have land, with the government’s
blessing. Universities are teaching Farsi.
Iran is to help build platforms in a US$4 billion development of Orinoco delta oil deposits in exchange for Venezuelan investments. An
Iranian company is building thousands of apartments for Venezuela’s
poor. The most visible impact so far has been the arrival of Iranian
businesses. The public housing project alone has brought more than
400 Iranian engineers and specialists to Venezuela, where many have
learned basic Spanish.
Venezuela could also provide Iran with some breathing space as it tries to weather the financial pressure of UN and US sanctions on its
nuclear programme. Venezuela could end up being an outlet for Iran to
move money, obtain high-tech equipment and access the world financial
Venezuela has already become Iran’s gateway for travel to the region. There is now a weekly flight between Caracas and Tehran, with
a stopover in Damascus, operated by the Venezuelan state-controlled
airline Conviasa and Iran’s national carrier, Iran Air. Flights
are packed with government officials and government-friendly business
people. Venezuela’s state airline bought an Airbus jet especially for
Bolivia might be a poor country, but it is strategically located and represents an important ally for Iran that can act as a catalyst in
enhancing Iran’s growing cooperation with other leftist or populist governments in Latin America.
On 27 September 2007 Ahmadinejad visited La Paz for the first time to meet President Morales. They took the opportunity to sign a programme
of cooperation worth US$1.1 billion in Bolivia’s underdeveloped
oil and gas sector.
In August 2008 the government of Bolivia, with the support of Iran and Venezuela, created the Public National Strategic Company ‘Cement
of Bolivia’ with an investment of US$230 million for the
establishment of two plants in Potosí and Oruro departments.
In the same month, the Vice-president of Iran, Mojtama Samare
Hashemi, came to the country to express his support for Evo Morales and to promote economic agreements.
Iran decided to open two health clinics in Bolivia, as a base for future Red Crescent projects in South America. The agreement includes
sending Iranian medical teams to Bolivia, and offering specialised
education and training for Bolivian physicians. The Bolivian Health
Minister said that the Iranian clinics would expand the medical aid
already being provided by Cuba and Venezuela.
The Iranian state television agreed to provide Bolivian state television with Spanish-language programming, making it that much
easier for every Bolivian to receive Iranian-produced news and documentary shows –ie, propaganda–.
In September 2008 Morales went to Teheran and agreed with Ahmadinejad to accelerate the execution of joint projects to increase economic
development and welfare for both nations. The two Presidents issued a
statement to the effect that the interference of the United Nations
Security Council in Iran’s nuclear programme had no legal or
technical justification. Morales’ decision to set aside any
hesitation and fully support Iran's position in the current nuclear
stand-off has gone a long way to cementing Iranian-Bolivian
friendship. According to the statement, the two sides have also
pledged to continue their political struggle against imperialism.
‘Nothing and no country can harm our relations with the revolutionary country of Iran’, Morales told reporters.
Following his return from Iran, President Evo Morales announced he was moving the country’s sole Middle Eastern Embassy from Egypt
to Iran, a clear sign of what his strategic priorities in the Middle East are.
According to Maradiaga and Meléndez, Nicaragua’s foreign policy strongly correlates with Venezuela’s, and any Latin
American relationship with Iran is conducted through Caracas.
President Ortega sees himself as a ‘revolutionary’ who
supports Chávez’s political-ideological anti-imperialist
‘Socialism of the 21st century’. Francisco Aguirre
Sacasa, a former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, described Ortega’s
relations with Iran as a ‘policy of the heart’.
Iran promised Nicaragua US$1 billion in aid and investment to develop its energy and agricultural sectors, infrastructure and water
purification facilities. The largest project was the construction of
a deep water port on Nicaragua’s eastern shore, requiring an
investment of US$350 million. Nicaragua received a US$231 million
loan from Iran in 2007 to build a hydroelectric dam. In August 2008,
Nicaraguan-Iranian relations were further consolidated when President
Ahmadinejad donated US$2 million for the construction of a hospital.
Iran will also expand media cooperation with Nicaragua. Iran has stationed about 20 Iranian officials at its Embassy there, which has by now become one of the largest in the country.
However, Maradiaga and Meléndez claimed as late as mid-2008 that the proposed projects created the appearance of strong economic
ties between the two nations but that there was little evidence that
the aid and investment would materialise. They doubted that the
relationship –held together by the anti-Americanism espoused by
the leaders of both countries– would deepen beyond the
ideological and political level. On the political level, Nicaragua is actually playing down US concerns about Iran’s nuclear-weapon ambitions and President
Ortega publicly supported Iran’s right to ‘nuclear energy for peaceful ends’.
Prior to 2007 ties were minimal and neither country had diplomatic or commercial offices in the other’s
capital. In 2000, 2006 and 2007, no Ecuadorean exports reached Iran,
and in 2003, the year with the highest volume of trade, Ecuador’s total exports to Iran were worth US$2.5 million.
Ahmadinejad’s short and surprising visit to Rafael Correa’s presidential inauguration in January 2007 spawned a new bilateral relationship
between the two countries. Correa maintained that the relationship
was not political but based solely on commercial interests. The
visiting President said that ‘deep cooperation between Iran and
Ecuador in the international arena will help establish balance in the
According to César Montúfar there is little evidence of a growing commercial
relationship between Quito and Tehran. The ties between Ecuador and
Iran were established because of Ecuador’s relationship with
Venezuela. Montúfar argues that as Venezuela’s influence
in Ecuador is declining a similar decline in Iran’s relations
with Ecuador has ensued.
However, this evaluation was quickly contradicted by the facts. In the summer of
2008 the two countries opened commercial bureaus in their respective
capitals. The Ecuadorean commercial bureau in Tehran was the only one
to be opened by the government of Correa since he was elected. Iran
and Ecuador signed an energy cooperation deal in September 2008,
including a plan to build a refinery and a petrochemical unit in
President Correa visited Iran in November 2008 and signed 25 bilateral agreements in various fields, including the oil
industry. Correa, who is the first Ecuadorean head of State to visit Iran, travelled accompanied by the
Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Oil and Mining, Agriculture and
Defence, among other officials and business people. In December 2008
Ecuador and Iran signed an agreement of cooperation in the field of
energy with the participation of Iran in hydro-electrical projects
and in the tender for the construction of the important of Coca-Codo-Sinclair dam project.
In December 2008, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council
Secretary Saeed Jalili visited Ecuador. During the meeting with Jalili, Correa said his
country’s relations with Iran were strategic and that he
favoured the expansion of the military ties and customs cooperation
between the two nations. ‘Links between Quito and Teheran are
beyond trade relations’, Correa said. Finally, on 13 February 2009 Iran opened a brand new Embassy in Quito, an act coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, a former Catholic bishop, was inaugurated as President of Paraguay on 15 August 2008 and headed the
country’s first left-leaning presidency.
Ahmadinejad was one of the first to congratulate Lugo on his victory.
Iran’s media praised Lugo by calling him ‘a man of God
and an enemy of the Great Satan’. The large Muslim population
in Paraguay’s tri-border region aided Lugo’s campaign for
the presidency through fund-raising drives that were supported by
Iran and Venezuela.
Lugo designated Alejandro Hamed Franco, Paraguay’s ambassador to Lebanon, as Foreign Minister. Hamed has publicly announced that he
plans to strengthen ties with the Middle East. His appointment was
sure to create tensions with the State Department due to his
sympathies with anti-US developments in the Middle East and his
acknowledged connections with US-banned groups. He was accused of
providing Paraguayan passports to Lebanese citizens, although he
claims they were only for those who were trying to escape Israeli attacks in 2006.
In February 2009 an Iranian government delegation visited Paraguay to seek import and investment opportunities. The Iranian delegation
hoped to import soya and meat from Paraguay and showed an interest in
bilateral cooperation in technology and agriculture and in investing
in Paraguayan real estate.
During President Mohammad Khatami’s February 2004 visit to Caracas to attend the summit of the non-aligned G-15 he met the newly
elected President Lula da Silva of Brazil and talked about bilateral
trade. Since then, Brazil’s exports to Iran have doubled and it
has been the latter’s largest Latin American trade partner for
several years, with a volume of exports to Iran as large as those of
neighbouring Turkey and India.
However, when in September 2007 Ahmadinejad expressed his intention of going to Brasilia on an
official visit –after speaking at the UN General Assembly and
visiting Venezuela and Bolivia–, Brazilian diplomacy came out
with the classic excuse: the impossibility of reconciling Lula and
the Iranian President’s schedules.
Still, Lula’s reluctance to meet Ahmadinejad did not prevent him from publicly
supporting Iran’s nuclear energy programme and suggesting that
Iran ‘should not be punished just because of Western suspicions
it wants to make an atomic bomb’.
During the visit in November 2008 of the Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim to Iran, his Iranian colleague Manouchehr Mottaki said
that ‘Iran affords South America major priority in its foreign
policy and Brazil enjoys a special position in this respect’
and that Tehran and Brasilia generally share the same interests in
numerous global matters which can be used as a potential for
bilateral consultations. Amorim, for his part, described the
expansion of ties with Iran as a priority for Brazil’s foreign
policy. He also referred to his meeting with Mottaki as a ‘turning
point’ in Brazil-Iran relations and expected that the visits by
the two nations’ Presidents would bring ties to a new level.
On this occasion, President Ahmadinejad said there are no barriers to the expansion of ties with Brazil. ‘The (political) systems in
the world are on the decline, and we should help each other and work
for establishing a new (political) order’. Ahmadinejad
expressed his hope that the visit to Iran of President Lula in the
near future would further help build up the friendship between the
In June 2008, the Uruguayan Vice-president Rodolfo Nin Novoa called
for the further expansion of all-out ties with the Islamic Republic
of Iran. He announced his readiness to pay a visit to Tehran to
discuss the furthering of bilateral cooperation with the Iranian
authorities and said that President Ahmadinejad had invited his
Uruguayan counterpart to visit Tehran in the near future. He also
announced Uruguay’s nomination of a new ambassador to Tehran
and the formation of the Iran-Uruguay Parliamentary Friendship
Group. Then, in October 2008, Fernando Alberto Arroyo became Uruguay’s
ambassador to Tehran.
Argentina has an Embassy in Tehran and Iran has an Embassy in Buenos Aires. Since 1994 relations between the two
countries have been marred by Iran’s involvement in the AMIA bombing. Efforts to resolve the case were
being made when much of the region was expanding its relations with
Iran, and several of Argentina’s regional allies were pledging support for Ahmadinejad’s government.
According to Iranian sources, during the 2004 G-15 summit meeting, despite Argentine President Nestor Kirchner’s interest in
discussing bilateral economic ties, Khatami refused to meet him until
‘Buenos Aires formally apologised to Tehran for falsely
charging Iranian diplomats with involvement in the bombing of the
AMIA Jewish community centre in 1994’.
Although Argentina maintains friendly relations with Iran’s allies, like Chávez, Ortega and Correa, Kirchner’s
domestic agenda is driving him in a different direction. For example,
he cancelled plans to attend President Correa’s inauguration
ceremony after Ahmadinejad announced that he would attend. The
continuing US conflict with Iran complicates matters further.
At the 2007 UN General Assembly, the Argentine President urged Iran to help with the probe on the terrorist attack. This was not well
received by the Tehran government, which responded angrily. The case
has also caused tension with Chávez, an ally of the then
President Kirchner. The Venezuelan ambassador to Buenos Aires, Roger
Capella, was replaced after he criticised the Argentine justice
system for seeking the capture of Iranian officials, upsetting the
Argentine government. But this was not enough to weaken the ties
between Argentina and Venezuela.
In February 2007, the Iranian government organized the first
International Conference on Latin America at the Institute of
International Political Studies at the Foreign Ministry. The title of
the conference was ‘Development in Latin America: Its Role and
Status in the Future International System’. According to press
releases, the participants also included Argentine members of parliament.
The Subtle Ideological/Religious Penetration
Iran’s religious and intellectual penetration of Latin America, its attempts to convert Christians and Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam
and thus export the ideology and revolutionary beliefs of Ayatollah
Khomeini is similar to the trend seen today in the Middle East, although it clearly does not reach the same proportions.
For instance, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the Sunni International Union for Muslim Scholars and the Muslim Brotherhood’s
main religious authority, has made harsh anti-Shia and anti-Iran
statements in the Egyptian and Saudi press. He warned against the
danger posed by the spread of Shia Islam in Sunni countries,
characterising it as part of Iran’s campaign for regional
In another typical example, an article on a Sudanese website accuses Iran of having ‘turned its Embassy in Khartoum into a
centre for spreading... Shia [Islam], aimed at prompting the Sudanese
to forsake Sunni [Islam] and embrace Imami Shiism [instead]’.
To ensure the success of this plan, various Iranian-funded facilities
have been established around the capital, including cultural centres,
libraries, institutions and schools. These establishments are
actually missionary centres for spreading Shia Islam. ‘[Moreover],
some of the recent converts to the Shia have begun to spread Shiite
philosophy in the capital and around the country, among students and
in the large universities’.
A superficial surf of the Internet shows that Latin America is not immune from this phenomenon. Professor Ángel Horacio Molina
(Hussain Ali), a researcher at the Centre of Oriental Studies of the
National University at Rosario (Argentina), writes frequently for the Revista Biblioteca Islámica in El Salvador and
moderates the Islamic blog oidislam.blogspot.com.
The blog’s home page presents itself as ‘Islam Indoamericano, a space to develop a revolutionary and indoamerican
Islam’. Molina is convinced of the importance of developing
this revolutionary brand of Islam to enrich the Muslim umma (nation) worldwide. However, his space is also used to propagate
opinions on ‘the political reality’ of the continent from
an ‘Islamic revolutionary perspective’.
Thus, the blog includes the speech by the Iranian ambassador to Mexico, Dr Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri, delivered on 11 February 2009 on
occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Khomeinist
revolution. Similarly, it has 10 articles in its chapter on ‘Islam
Indoamericano’, 11 on ‘Islamic Resistance’ and 21
on ‘Zionism Uncovered’, all of which are anti-Israeli and
anti-US. Among the recommended links are Hezbollah’s website and several Iranian or pro-Iranian websites in Spanish.
The following is a non-comprehensive list of Spanish Iranian or pro-Iranian websites:
Organization Islamica Argentina, http://www.organizacionislam.org.ar/.
Unión de Mujeres Musulmanas Argentinas, http://www.umma.org.ar/.
United Latino Muslims of America (ULMA) [actually an Iranian site for Mexico and the Movimiento Mexicano de
Solidaridad con el Pueblo Irani (MMSPI)], http://u-l-m-a.com/default.aspx.
Comunidad islamica Shia de Bolivia, http://usuarios.lycos.es/shiabolivia/.
Oficina de Divulgación Islámica Fátimah Az-Zahra/San Salvador/El Salvador, available in
Spanish, English, French, Italian and Portuguese (!), http://www.islamelsalvador.com/.
Corporación de Cultura Islámica,
Santiago, Chile, http://www.islamchile.com/pagina.php.
Semanario Islámico, Temuco, Chile, http://www.islam.cl/.
Fundación Cultural Oreinte, http://www.islamoriente.com/.
Red Islam, http://www.redislam.com/.
Agencia de Noticias Coránicas de Irán, http://www.iqna.ir/es/.
Organización Cultural y de Relaciones Islámicas (OCRI), http://es.icro.ir/.
Shia Latinos, http://shialatinos.blogspot.com/.
Also, the pro-Iranian blog Imperialism and Resistance (http://almusawwir.org/resistance/),
that combines leftist revolutionary rhetoric and messages with
Islamist ideology, provides much Latin American news (almusawwir is one of the 99 names of Allah in the Quran: the Fashioner, the
Bestower of Forms and the Shaper).
All these websites contain not only legitimate religious or cultural texts and explanations, but also radical political anti-American,
anti-Israeli and anti-Western material. The Islam-Shia website, for instance, recommends reading two
books on Israel and Zionism by the Argentine radical right-wing ‘philosopher’ and
strategist Norberto Ceresole: The Falsification of Reality; Argentina in the Geopolitical Space of Jewish Terrorism and The
Conquest of the American Empire: Jewish Power in the West and the
East. Not only that, but it also recommends the French Holocaust
denier and ex-communist Roger Garaudy’s book The Fundamental
Myths of the State of Israel and, to crown it all, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
On a broader strategic level, Iran planned to open a television station ‘for all of Latin America’ to be based in
Bolivia. Morales made the announcement at a gathering of coca farmers
from the Chapare. The station would be ‘for all of Bolivia, for
all of Latin America, recognising the great struggle of this peasant
movement’, Morales said. According to recent information, the Iranian government has renounced, for unknown reasons, financing the installation of the TV
channel in Bolivia, although an Iranian TV team visited Bolivia to
follow its ‘political and cultural reality’.
Opposition to Iranian Penetration
Farhi argues that the new-found intensity of Iran’s relations
in Latin America is unsustainable. It is based on political
opportunism, as a diplomatic thorn in America’s side, rather
than on a more long-term economic or military partnership. Already,
the proposed deepwater seaport is facing resistance in Nicaragua by
land-rights activists. Iran’s real commitment to this project
is also not clear and Tehran has so far refused to forgo Nicaragua’s
US$152 million debt, despite Ortega’s specific request that it
do so. Ultimately, Farhi predicts that while bilateral relations
between Iran and individual Latin American countries will continue to
gradually improve, based on economic give-and-take and a degree of
shared commitment to non-alignment, the intensely vitriolic character
of current relations is unlikely to continue beyond Ahmadinejad’s
term in office.
For instance, days after it was published that Iran had promised a loan to build a hydroelectric dam in Nicaragua, the opposition party
Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS) criticised the
government, claiming that the interest rates asked by Iran were
double those offered by the World Bank and the Banco Interamericano
de Desarrollo. Some have claimed that cooperation with Iran would
permit President Ortega to renounce cooperation with the US and
Europe, who require transparency and scrutiny. Similar criticism has been aimed at President Morales of Bolivia by Jorge Quiroga, the leader of the main opposition party, and by the Governor of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa.
It is interesting to note that in Iran itself a group of students has criticised Ali Larijani, the Chairman/Speaker of the Iranian parliament, and President Ahmadinejad for the support they give President Chávez of Venezuela. The anonymous writer of this information on a leftist blog notes that there are social and political sectors in Iran that are opposed to the strengthening of relations with Chávez, not with the Venezuelan people.
According to this analysis, the danger exists that the interesting and beneficial rapprochement of the last few years between Iran and
Latin America could confront a grater danger: that relations will
freeze at the level of the administrations and will not involve the
peoples. The danger is that any change in political leadership, in
Iran or in the Latin American countries, will actually result in a
decrease in the present level of bilateral relations. Therefore, the
big challenge will be to incorporate the social actors to bilateral
cooperation. César Montúfar has commented that it is surprising and
incoherent that the Iranian president and his government, while deepening the country’s ties with the leftist governments of
Latin America, is implacably repressing its own leftist groups at home.
The Middle East’s Strategic Bonanza for Iran
The expansion of economic and political relations and cooperation
with Latin American countries is also intended to bring Iran
strategic assets in the Middle Eastern arena, its home turf. As
already noted, the support Iran received on the issue of its nuclear
project from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and even Brazil, is
extremely important for the Tehran regime, especially if the UN
imposes harsher economic sanctions and more states accept them.
In the regional arena, Venezuela and Bolivia strongly supported
Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War in July-August 2006.
President Chávez was extremely vociferous during that period.
But the real test came during the last war in Gaza, when Israel
started ‘Operation Cast Lead’ to deter Hamas from bombing
Israeli territory and staging continuous terrorist activities against
its citizens. Presidents Chávez and Morales fully embraced
Iran’s position and complied with Ahmadinejad’s demand to
sever diplomatic relations with Israel. The decision was taken after
the visiting Iranian Minister of Industry and Mines, Ali Akbar
Mehrabián, delivered a letter from his President to the
leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Venezuela not only broke off its relations with Israel ‘given
the inhumane persecution of the Palestinian people’, it
also promised to request the prosecution of Israel’s leaders at
the International Court for crimes against humanity and not to rest
until they are punished. The visiting Iranian Minister of Cooperation, Mohammad Abbasi, delivered a similar letter from his President to the leaders of
Brazil and Ecuador, who did not follow the Venezuelan and Bolivian example.
According to Kaveh Afrasiabi, from Tehran’s point of view, an indirect benefit of its special relations with Bolivia is that it
impresses on Moscow the services that Tehran can render in
strengthening Moscow’s anti-unipolarist credo, which was
spelled out by President Dmitry Medvedev in his major foreign policy
speech in September 2008. Medvedev openly mentioned Russia’s
intention of seeking a ‘sphere of influence’ in politics
and made a point of mentioning that it would be sought ‘not
only with neighbours’.
Russian experts, including some at the Russian Centre for Strategic
Studies, have pointed out that in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis
Russia is inclined to strengthen its ties with countries such as Iran
and Venezuela. The growing rift between the US and Russia is an
opportunity for Tehran both to neutralise the UN Security Council’s
efforts to impose tighter sanctions on account of its nuclear
programme but also to explore further, and more meaningful, strategic
cooperation with Russia and the Latin American leftist regimes
vis-à-vis the common threat of US unipolarism.
Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy advisors are openly counting on Iran’s new relations with Latin America as one of the net gains
of his presidency. In fact, the new level of cooperation between Iran
and Latin and Central American countries is a timely, further
confirmation of the strategic vision and outlook that they have
brought to the government compared to Mohammad Khatami’s aim of
reaching detente with the West almost to the exclusion of all else.
Iran and Terrorism in Latin America
Iran is still the world’s ‘most active state sponsor of terrorism’, according to the US State Department in its most
recent study on the subject. It is a label the Iranian regime has won, and worn proudly, since the US government began keeping track of terrorist trends more than a decade and a half ago.
The scope of this support is enormous. According to government officials, Iran ‘has a nine-digit line item in its budget for
support to terrorist organizations’. The figure is estimated to
include US$10 million or more monthly for its principal terrorist
proxy, Hezbollah, US$20-30 million annually for the Palestinian
Islamist movement Hamas, US$2 million a year for the Palestinian
Islamic Jihad, and –at least until recently– upwards of
US$30 million a year for Iraqi insurgents.
In 2006, the Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon expressed his concern about the kind of relationship Chávez wants to
have with Iran on the intelligence side. ‘One of our broader
concerns is what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what
it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of
confrontation with Iran’, he said. In June 2008 Shannon
declared that Iran ‘has a history of terror in this hemisphere,
and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well
The 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires is arguably the first Islamist terrorist attack in the Western
Hemisphere. Although the attack has yet to be officially solved, the
bulk of the evidence points to Hezbollah. A car, driven by a suicide
bomber and loaded with explosives, smashed into the front of the
Embassy and killed 29 people and injured a further 242. On 18 July
1994, the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building was
bombed, leaving 85 dead and 300 injured. This attack was the
deadliest terrorist toll ever in Argentina’s history, and
resulted in the largest Jewish death toll from terrorism outside Israel since the Second World War.
The AMIA case has gone through many ups and downs, involving prosecution changes, witness tampering charges and several arrests
that ended in release. On 25 October 2006, Dr Alberto Nisman,
Argentina’s Attorney General, and Marcelo Martínez
Burgos presented the findings of the special team which investigated
the terrorist attack that destroyed the AMIA building. The detailed
report unequivocally showed that the decision to blow up the building
was taken by the ‘highest instances of the Iranian government’,
and that the Iranians had asked Hezbollah, which serves as a tool for its strategies, to carry out the attack.
The report did not ignore the fact that the attack was carried out for reasons connected to the conflict in the Middle East (including
the abduction of Mustafa Dirani and the Israeli bombing of the
Hezbollah training camp in the Beqa’a Valley). However, based
on the evidence collected, it concluded that the fundamental reason
was the Argentine ‘government’s unilateral decision to
terminate the nuclear materials and technology supply agreements that had been concluded some years previously between Argentina and Iran’.
On 9 November 2006, Judge Corral adopted the Attorney General’s recommendations and issued international arrest warrants for seven
Iranians and one senior Hezbollah operative. The warrants were for
the upper echelons of the former Iranian government, including the
former President, Iranian diplomats posted to Buenos Aires and Imad
Moughnieh, head of Hezbollah’s External Security Service and Hassan Nasrallah’s military deputy.
In March 2007, INTERPOL’s Executive Committee, after considering written submissions and oral presentations from Argentina
and Iran in connection with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building in
Buenos Aires decided to endorse and adopt the conclusions of the
report prepared by INTERPOL’s Office of Legal Affairs to the
effect that Red Notices should be issued for the following six
individuals: Imad Fayez Mughniyah, Ali Fallahijan, Mohsen Rabbani,
Ahmad Reza Asghari, Ahmad Vahidi and Mohsen Rezai. The Executive
Committee also endorsed the Office of Legal Affairs’ conclusion
that Red Notices should not be issued for the former President of
Iran, Ali Rafsanjany, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali
Akbar Velayati, or the former Ambassador to Buenos Aires, Hadi
Soleimanpour. In November 2007, delegates at the 76th INTERPOL General Assembly
upheld the unanimous decision made by the organisation’s Executive
Committee to publish six of nine Red Notices requested in connection with the
1994 bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires.
It has been sufficiently demonstrated that in his capacity as head of
Hezbollah’s external security apparatus, Mughniyeh was the
person who received instructions from the Iranian Ministry of the
Interior (after the decision was made to carry out the attack) and
that he implemented these instructions by forming an operational group to carry it out.
It is interesting to analyse the Iranian reaction to Mughniyeh’s assassination in February 2008 in Damascus. The honours bestowed upon
the until then ‘invisible’ Mughniyeh were outstanding: the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei hailedMughniyeh as a ‘great man’; Ahmadinejhad called him a ‘source of pride for all believers’; heading a high-level Iranian
delegation, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended Mughniyeh’s funeral in Beirut ‘to commemorate the great
hero’ and expressed condolences ‘on behalf of the Iranian government and people’. Mughniyeh was projected as an Iranian
hero who fought against Iraq and took part in several daring operations behind Iraqi lines.
Iranian leaders uttered harsh statements against Israel, stronger even than Hezbollah’s. The Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ahmad
Moussavi, warned that the death of Mughniyeh ‘will lead to an earthquake in the Zionist regime’. Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, a
cofounder of Hezbollah and current Secretary General of the International Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People,
claimed Mughniyeh’s assassination was a ‘prelude’ to ‘very dangerous and major events in the next few months’.
Strangely, after the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki met with senior Syrian officials in Damascus to discuss Mughniyeh’s
assassination and announced a joint probe into the assassination, a
Syrian official dismissed the report as ‘totally baseless’
and said Damascus would conduct the investigation alone. The result
has not yet been made public, as it is immensely embarrassing for the
Syrian government to explain how this wanted terrorist was on its soil.
According to the investigation of Attorney General Alberto Nisman and District Attorney Marcelo Martínez Burgos, numerous pieces of
evidence show that Argentina was infiltrated by Iran’s
intelligence service, which in the mid 1980s began establishing a
vast spy network that then became a complete ‘intelligence
service’ that basically comprised: the Iranian Embassy and its
cultural attaché in Buenos Aires; extremist elements that were
associated with the Shiite mosques At-Tauhíd in Floresta, Al
Iman in Cañuelas and El Mártir in San Miguel de
Tucumán; the businesses referred to as ‘fronts’
–GTC and Imanco–; and other radicalised members of the
Islamic community who were in Argentina for the sole purpose of
gathering the information and making the arrangements that paved the
way for the attack on AMIA on the morning of 18 July 1994. The situation seems to repeat itself today in Venezuela and Bolivia, but this time with the active or passive support of their
governments, which are well aware of past intelligence Iranian activity in the continent.
At the intelligence level, US officials say they are worried about the possibility of terrorists and Iranian intelligence agents
arriving on the weekly flight between Caracas and Tehran. The State Department charged in an April terrorism report that ‘passengers
on these flights were not subject to immigration and customs
Bolivia’s President Morales has ordered his Foreign Minister to
lift visa restrictions on Iranian citizens. The problem of visa-free
Iranian travel is the potential it affords for the creation of a
terrorist base of operations in the US’s backyard. If anyone
with an Iranian passport can enter Bolivia without a visa or any
further documentation, the country will soon be open to covert
officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, its
Islamic Revolutionary Guard –which the State Department
recently declared a terrorist organisation– and the Quds Force,
an Iranian military group whose mandate is to spread Islamic
revolution around the world. A further danger is if other Latin American countries follow the Bolivian lead and lift visa restrictions. Iran has already proved what it can do in Latin America with visa restrictions.
Hezbollah’s Presence in Latin America and the Threat of Terrorism
Hezbollah’s presence and nefarious activity in South America is well documented. It was behind the two deadliest terrorist attacks in
the continent’s history: the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community centre bombings in Buenos Aires, which took place in the
early 1990s. Hezbollah also established a significant presence in the
‘tri-border area’ (TBA, where Argentina, Brazil, and
Paraguay converge) using local businesses, drug trafficking and
contraband networks to launder funds for terrorist operations worldwide.
Since 9/11, under US pressure, local governments in the tri-border area and other countries, like Chile and Colombia, have monitored and
discovered part of the wide Hezbollah network active in the
continent. However, despite the arrest of important activists in Paraguay,
Brazil and Chile, mainly for economic crimes or narcotics trafficking, this large Hezbollah network continues to be active on
Increased focus on the TBA after Hezbollah-linked bombings in Buenos Aires and again after the September 11 attacks in the US led to an
increased understanding of Hezbollah’s fundraising operations,
but also led Hezbollah to shift them to other Latin American
countries, making their location, nature and extent largely unknown.
Evidence linking Hezbollah to the emergence of Islamic mosques in Ecuador, that promote radical religious views consistent with
Hezbollah’s ideology, indicates that it recognises the need to
increase its ideological support base in Ecuador. Hezbollah’s
promotion of radical religious ideology in Ecuador is consistent with
its organisational use of radical ideology to increase its legitimacy
by mitigating any sources of opposition from members of its radical
constituency in response to increased participation in the Lebanese
political system. This relationship specifically identifies diasporas
as strategically valuable to terrorist operations and results in
several important policy implications for their treatment by
host-nations determined to combat terrorist operations.
In June 2005 Ecuadorean police broke up an international cocaine ring
led by a Lebanese restaurant owner suspected of raising money for
Hezbollah. The Lebanese ringleader, Rady Zaiter, had organised a
large narco-terrorist infrastructure using his Arab food restaurant
in northern Quito as a front. The Ecuadorean investigation led to
related arrests of 19 people in Brazil and the US.
In 2001, the Colombian Technical Investigation Corps (CTI) arrested a Lebanese businessman, named Mohammed Ali Farhad, with ties to
Hizbollah for managing a US$650 million cigarette smuggling and money
laundering operation between Ipiales, Colombia, and ports in Ecuador.
The Farhad investigation established a link with a Hezbollah-backed
money-laundering operation run by Eric and Alexander Mansur, through
the Mansur Free Zone Trading Company NV129.
On 21 October 2008 US and Colombian investigators dismantled an international cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring that
allegedly used part of its profits to finance Hezbollah. The
authorities arrested at least 36 suspects, including a Lebanese
linchpin in Bogota, Chekry Harb, who used the alias ‘Taliban’.
The authorities accused Harb of being a ‘world-class money
launderer’ whose ring washed hundreds of millions of dollars a
year, from Panama to Hong Kong, while paying a percentage to
Hezbollah. The suspects allegedly worked with a Colombian cartel and
a paramilitary group to smuggle cocaine to the US, Europe and the
Middle East. Harb travelled extensively to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt
and was in phone contact with Hezbollah members.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a credible intelligence source claimed that Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard of Iran
have formed terrorist cells to kidnap Jews in South America and
smuggle them to Lebanon. The source alleged that Venezuelans have
been recruited at Caracas’ airport to provide information about
In June 2008 the US Treasury Department froze the assets of two Venezuelans after having designated them as Hezbollah supporters and
accusing them of raising funds for the organisation. Ghazi Nasr al
Din, a Venezuelan diplomat of Lebanese ancestry, is accused of using
his position at embassies in the Middle East to raise funds for
Hezbollah and of discussing ‘operational issues with senior
officials’ of the militia. In late January 2006, Nasr al Din
facilitated the travel of two Hezbollah representatives at the
Lebanese Parliament to Caracas to solicit donations and to announce
the opening of a Hezbollah-sponsored community centre and office in
Venezuela. He is currently assigned to Venezuela’s Embassy in
Lebanon. The second Venezuelan noted by the Treasury Department is
Fawzi Kanan, a Caracas-based travel agent. He is also alleged to have
facilitated travel for Hezbollah members and to have discussed
‘possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks’ with senior
Hezbollah officials in Lebanon. Instead
of opening an investigation, Chávez said that the world was using the allegations to ‘ make a move’ against him. The Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro lashed out at the US: ‘If they want to search for terrorists, look for them in the White House’.
A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Hezbollah was training young Venezuelans in military camps in south Lebanon to prepare them for
attacking American targets. It
was reported a few months later that the Venezuelan Minister of the
Interior, Tarek El Aissami, was working directly with Ghazi
Nasr al-Din to recruit young Venezuelans of Arab descent that were supportive of
the Chávez regime to train in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
Reportedly, the purpose was to prepare these youths for asymmetric
warfare against the US in the event of a confrontation. According to
this report, Hezbollah also established training camps inside Venezuela, complete with ammunition and explosives, courtesy
of El Aissami.
Chávez, meanwhile, is perhaps the most open apologist for Hezbollah in the
hemisphere. During the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006, Chávez withdrew
the Venezuelan ambassador to Israel. He later accused Israel of conducting its defensive war in ‘the fascist manner
of Hitler’. After making the comments on al-Jazeera television, Chávez returned home and continued to malign Israel on his weekly television
broadcast, Aló Presidente.
It comes as no surprise that Hezbollah’s director of international relations, Nawaf Musawi, attended an April 2008
ceremony at Venezuela’s Embassy in Beirut commemorating the sixth anniversary of the defeat of the anti-Chávez uprising in
Venezuela. As an invited speaker, Musawi praised the survival of
President Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution while denouncing
the US and ‘other powers that try to defeat the sovereignty and
free will of the combative peoples of the world’.
‘Hezbollah América Latina’
Probably the most striking and worrying trend has been the appearance in 2006 of a strange group calling itself ‘Hezbollah América
Latina’, claiming to be active in Argentina, Chile, Colombia,
El Salvador and Mexico. Actually, the organisation’s backbone
seemed to be ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’, led by one Teodoro
Rafael Darnott who pretended to lead the Latin American ‘network’.
They presented themselves also as a group of converted Wayuu Indians,
Autonomía Islamica Wayuu, and issued a strategic statement
titled ‘The Jihad in America will Begin in 2007’. This
‘organisation’ has been analysed in detail by this author
and the Spanish researcher Manuel Torres Soriano.
‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ Case Study: The True (?) Story
On 23 October 2006, José Miguel Rojas Espinoza, a 26-year-old student of the state-run Bolivarian University, was arrested after
the Baruta Municipality police found two explosive devices near the
US Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. One of the bombs was found in a box
containing leaflets making reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, while
the other device was found outside a school, near the diplomatic
premises. According to the local police, the idea was apparently to
create alarm and publicise a message by scattering the pamphlets. It
is possible that the second device was intended to explode near the
Israeli Embassy but the suspect became nervous and dropped it near the US Embassy.
‘Hezbollah Latin America’ claimed responsibility for the attack on its website and promised it would stage other attacks, with
the same goal of publicising the organisation. The website presented
Rojas as ‘the brother mujahedeen, the first example of dignity
and struggle in the cause of Allah, the first prisoner of the
revolutionary Islamic movement Hezbollah Venezuela’. Already on
18 August 2006 the organisation threatened to explode a non-lethal
device against an ally of the US in a Latin American city in order to
launch its propaganda campaign. ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’
would see this as the beginning of its war against imperialism and
Zionism and to show its solidarity with the Lebanese Hezbollah after the July war in Lebanon.
The leader of ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’, Teodoro Darnott, traces the origins of the organisation to a small Marxist faction
called ‘The Guaicaipuro Movement for National Liberation’
(Proyecto Movimiento Guaicaipuro por la Liberación
Nacional, MGLN)”, which struggled against the oppression of
the poor, indigenous peasants in the Valle de Caracas region. Darnott
presented himself as Commander Teodoro, in a clear imitation of
Subcomandante Marcos, the Mexican guerrilla leader in Chiapas.
According to this account, the MGLN did not withstand the pressure of
the security forces and was forced to retreat to Colombia. The group
returned after five years to Venezuela to convert into Hezbollah,
without a clear explanation for its metamorphosis. Darnott denied any
link between ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ and the Lebanese
Hezbollah. Indeed, the religious and ideological foundations of his documents are very poor and superficial.
In his article, Soriano emphasises the group’s leftist revolutionary background and rhetoric. Soriano considers that the
group has a significant synergy with the so-called Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. In one of its ideological editorials, the
group expresses enormous respect and positive appreciation for the
achievements of Hugo Chávez’s regime: ‘Hezbollah
América Latina respects the Venezuelan revolutionary process,
supports the policies of this process concerning the social benefices
for the poor and the anti-Zionist and anti-American policy of this
revolution’. However, the group does not accept a socialist
ideology, not because it opposes it, but because Hezbollah’s
ideology is ‘theocratic and obeys divine rules’.
Therefore, for a new Venezuela to emerge, the revolution should
aspire ‘to the divine and the moral’ and should firmly
support Hezbollah ‘political-military project’.
On 2 November 2006 ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ announced, ‘out of respect for the revolution and its leader’, that it would
suspend its activities until after the elections of 3 December 2006,
the day of the presidential elections in Venezuela, a show of
solidarity with the regime and an attempt not to hamper it during the last days of the election campaign.
Several weeks later Teodoro Darnott was arrested in Maracaibo, and practically nothing was published by
the Venezuelan authorities about his fate. Until recently this
‘episode’ in the short history of ‘Hezbollah Latin
America’ had not allowed the drawing of any clear conclusions
regarding the group’s real characteristics and goals and its relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah.
However, in December 2008 Teodoro Darnott and José Miguel Rojas were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for their terrorist
attack against the US Embassy, and here begins the surprise. In October 2008 Darnott opened a blog, apparently from prison, in which he described his religious and political beliefs and presented, apologetically, his past activity. He described himself as a mujahedeen ‘criollo’ (born in
Latin America of European descent) with the new name of Teodoro Abdullah.
Darnott no longer presents himself as the leader of ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’, but as a theocratic political-religious leader,
ambassador and precursor of theocracy for Latin America. His very
simplistic, primitive ideas propose for the continent, and for
Venezuela, a theocratic nation, society and way of life and a new
culture and civilisation of the divine. For him, ‘Hezbollah
Venezuela’ –along with Osama bin Laden and other
mujahedeen– are not terrorists but jihadists fighting the US
and the secular state of Israel, the defenders of the abhorred capitalist order and democracy.
It is not the intention here to analyse Darnott’s religious ‘world view’ but mainly to discover the political and
operational reality behind ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ and
‘Hezbollah América Latina’ and the links between
this project and the Lebanese Hezbollah. For the first time this
endeavour is possible due to the publication by Darnott in his blog
of a 100-page biography.
How Does it Work?
A detailed analysis of Darnott’s biography provides an insight into the process of radicalisation and cooption to the Hezbollah
network in Latin America. However, the document requires a more
thorough study to check and confront on the ground the large amount of information cited about people and organisations.
Darnott’s first contact with Islam was in Maicao, Colombia, where he met a Lebanese Shia, Musa Rada, who taught him Islam. He
began to visit the local mosque and read theological books and the
journal Azakalain (sic). Rada proposed that he study
Islam at the Kausar Islamic Institute in Cali, Colombia. The Shia
Association in Maicao paid his travel expenses to Cali, where he was
already expected. There he was awaited by one Rashi, a leader of the
Muslim community of African descent. The Institute’s Director was Abdul Karin, a university professor.
Darnott describes the studies there as informal and without discipline. He returned to Maicao with the intention of integrating
himself in the local Arab community. He continued his activities in the framework of MGLN.
He was also in contact, through his companion Gerardo Ortiz Palencia with the guerrilla organisation FARC-EP in the Cúcuta region,
under the leadership of Comandante Rodrigo, active in the Norte de Santander department, in Pamplona, Pamplonita and Cúcuta.
After visits to poor Muslim communities in Santa Marta and Cartagena he decided to go to Bogotá, where he met a surgeon, Dr
Juventino Martínez, who introduced him to José Gabriel Jiménez, known as Yahia (Juan).
According to Darnott, the Muslim community in Bogotá is made up of various groups, including the Asociación Islámica
de Bogotá, which includes Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab members. The second group is La Sociedad Islámica de Bogotá,
under the leadership of the Colombian Imam Dr Carlos Sánchez
and a Kuwaiti. According to ‘clandestine sources’ the
restaurant and free meals at this organisation are financed by
al-Qaeda, and therefore many Colombians fear visiting it. The third
group is the Centro Cultural Islámico de Bogotá, under the leadership of Dr Julián Zapata.
When Dr Julián Zapata went to study in the Middle East, Dr Juventino Martínez was appointed head of the Centro Cultural
Islámico de Bogotá, but soon the financial resources
‘disappeared’ and the Centre was on the verge of closing down.
As he found no interest in Bogotá for his ‘liberation struggle project’ for the Wayuu people, Darnott travelled to
Bucaramanga, Santander. There he was approached by the Roman Catholic
Bishop, Alfredo Vesgas, who proposed that he become a priest in the
Guajira diocese. He accepted, as this served as a cover for his
clandestine activities. At the same time, under the influence of a
‘revolutionary’ priest, Padre Chucho, he finally found
the ‘one and true God’, the God of liberation and salvation.
He continued his studies of Islam and theology at the local mosque in Maicao and through the Internet and developed an ‘Islamo-Christian
theology of liberation’, a mixture of the theologies of Imam
Khomeni and Gustavo Gutiérrez.
It was then, according to Darnott, that he really converted to Islam
and the first thing he did was to change the symbols and messages of
the MGLN, which became the Autonomía Islámica Wayuu (Wayuu Islamic Autonomy). Some accepted the changes while others left
the community, but the move fostered closer links with other Islamic
entities and many Muslims joined the movement, which called itself
‘revolutionary Islamic’ and accepted the messages of ayatollah Khomeini.
One day, a certain Nik made contact with Darnott, and after a period of discussions and e-mail exchanges, the man disclosed that his real
name was Mohamed Saleh, of Lebanese origin, who worked as a professor at the University of La Plata in Argentina.
Saleh told Darnott that he was working for the Iranian government, that he was an important member of Hezbollah in Argentina and at the
same time the leader of Hizbul Islam for Latin America, an Islamic
party present in Uruguay and Paraguay. According to Darnott, Hizbul
Islam is actually Hezbollah. His Arab friends in Maicao confirmed
that Mohamed Saleh was a professor at the Universidad de la Plata and a member of Hezbollah.
Saleh informed Darnott that the leadership of Hizbul Islam had approved his nomination as its representative in Venezuela, but on
condition that he renounced all his work on the Internet. From
Darnott’s point of view this meant renouncing to four years of intensive professional revolutionary work on the web.
Mohamed Saleh frequently called Darnott to his Maicao phone number during the last six months of 2006. They exchanged e-mails and in one
message Saleh proposed passing on weapons that Hezbollah had in
Paraguay: 400 Kalashnikovs, bazookas and ammunition. FARC-EP was supposed to help transfer the weapons to Colombia.
The agreement stipulated that the MGLN would be transformed into a Hezbollah cell into which Muslims would be recruited. The first
meeting with Mohamed Saleh was planned for 2 October 2006, after
which ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ became an organised group
under the orders of the organisation’s council in Latin
America. He did not provide Darnott with any further details but
informed him that the organisation was responsible for bombing the AMIA building in Argentina.
Darnott describes in great detail his organisational work in Guajira to form ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’, the persons involved, the
rivalries and betrayals. He stresses the importance of the work on
the Internet for recruiting and propaganda and the fact that the
Second Lebanon War gave a lot of publicity to his ‘organisation’.
He candidly notes that the protests by Jewish organisations against
his threats and the media attention it received helped enhance the group’s visibility and outreach.
Finally, as regards the failed bombing at the US Embassy, Darnott claims that although he new about the planning he did not support it
and accuses the perpetrators of lack of ‘professionalism’.
Actually, his declaration of jihad, his threat to attack US and
Jewish targets and the bombing itself were intended to give publicity
to his ideas, to serve as ‘loud speakers’ to divulge his
ideas and organisation. In the end, however, he does not explain the
Lebanese Hezbollah’s role in the group’s ‘military’
activity and what happened to their relationship after the failed terrorist attack.
What made ‘Hezbollah Venezuela’ worthy of attention was the timing of its activities. It became visible at a time when ‘the
strange liaison’ between Hugo Chávez and the Iranian
President Ahmadinejad had become an item of international interest. Moreover, despite the long detention of Darnott and Rojas and the information the Venezuelan security forces already had about the
group, the government did not provide any details about who is really behind the network.
Teodoro Rafael Darnott, probably in jail, recently threatened the US saying that ‘If the United States were to attack Iran, the only
country ruled by God, we would counterattack in Latin America and
even inside the United States itself. We have the means and we know
how to go about it. We will sabotage the transportation of oil from
Latin America to the US You have been warned’.
The current Argentine government is unsympathetic to radical organisations or regimes, but there are many active groups and
movements of the radical right and left in the country which have
often expressed anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-US views. The
difficulties in the long investigation and prosecution of the
terrorist bombings of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA building, which at
times involved the arrest and trial of rightist or corrupt people, bear witness to the tolerance of such radical activities.
A past analysis of ‘Hezbollah Argentina’ showed a strikingly different picture from that of ‘Hezbollah
Venezuela’. While the Venezuelan group is based on indigenous
Wayuu Indians with a strong leftist background and revolutionary
rhetoric, the Argentine group seems to include radical rightist mixed
with leftist populist elements; the two trends have very close
relations with the local Arab Shia community and the Iranian regime. The rightist influence is clear in the publication of some of the most anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-American texts of Norberto
Ceresole, the same whose pamphlets were published in the Islam-Shia
website. Ceresole made contact with the Iranian regime immediately
after the bombing of the Jewish AMIA building in 1994 and visited
Iran and Lebanon. Ceresole considered Iran, since the Khomeini
revolution, to be ‘the centre of resistance to Jewish
aggression’ and the only state that has supplanted ‘the secular Arab resistance’ in fighting the Jewish State.
The more popular leftist trend is present in the group’s cooperation with Quebracho, a small Argentine militant group. The
Patriotic Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Patriótico
Revolucionario, MPR, or Quebracho) claims to be a political
organisation fighting for ‘a socially just, economically
independent and politically sovereign country’ for the
‘National Antiimperialist Revolution’. Quebracho
militants refuse to define themselves as leftist or rightist. They
consider themselves ‘revolutionary patriots’ in the framework of the Latin American liberation struggle.
The Islamic Association of Argentina mainly consists of converts to Shiism (while there are few Argentines who convert to Sunnism) and
cooperates closely with the Iranian Embassy. The Association and its
religious leader, Sheikh Abdala Madani, clearly identify themselves
with the Iranian regime. The link appeared on their website and Khomeini posters are carried at every anti-Israel demonstration.
Things have not changed much in Argentina. If one looks at information and photos in the media covering the July 2006 march in
Buenos Aires in solidarity with the Palestinian people, just days
before bigger pro-Hezbollah manifestations were staged during the
Second Lebanon War, the same Iranian-sponsored and linked groups
appear: Organización Islámica Argentina (OIA), Mezquita
At-Tauhid, Asociación Argentino Islámica (La Plata),
Mezquita Ash-Shahid (Tucumán), Mezquita Al-Imam (Cañuelas)
and the leader of the Asociación Argentino Islámica,
Sheikh Abdala Madani. To be sure, Ayatollah Khomeini’s portrait
Hezbollah and the Anti-globalisation Movement
On 17-19 September 2004 activists held an ‘International Strategy Meeting’ in Beirut under the title ‘Where Next
for the Global Anti-War and Anti-Globalisation Movements?’. The
Beirut conference emerged from a process that began at a May 2003
antiwar conference in Jakarta and continued at an antiwar assembly at
the Mumbai World Social Forum in January 2004. The main conveners
included Focus on the Global South (Thailand), a ‘key player in
the global movement’, and the Civilian Campaign for Protection
of Palestinian People (France). The rest of the working group that
organised the conference hailed from Argentina, South Africa, Japan,
France, Nicaragua, India, the Philippines, Italy, Brazil, Greece, the
UK and the US, reflecting the broadly international and
south-weighted character of the initiative. Some 300 individuals from
50 countries participated in the conference, representing various
antiwar coalitions, social movements, NGOs and other groups.
The Arab sponsors (the Lebanese Welcoming Committee) included ‘progressives, seculars, and Islamists’, such as
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Progressive Socialist
Party of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Joining them were activists
from Syria, Egypt, and Morocco and Palestinian areas as well as a
delegation of Iraqis. The decision to hold the meeting in the Middle
East was part of a conscious effort to build closer links with antiwar and anti-corporate globalisation activists in the region.
Hezbollah is not known for its antiwar or antiglobalisation stance and had never before participated in such a conference. It was
invited because a group of radical Italian leftists insisted.
Hezbollah was described at the conference as ‘one of the
leading welcoming organisations [and] an example of successful,
targeted and organised resistance’. Ali Fayad, member of
Hezbollah’s Central Council and Chairman of the Academic Centre
for Documentation, stressed that Islam’s message is one of
unity and collaboration, not division, and that the conference was
held in Beirut because Lebanon’s resistance ‘defeated the
Reagan project for the Middle East in the 1980s... [and] liberated the land from occupation’.
It seems that Hezbollah decided to jump on the antiglobalisation bandwagon at a sensitive moment in the war on terror and the
situation in Iraq –both fragile, explosive situations that could decide the course of future events in the Middle East–.
Four years after the first Beirut anti-globalisation conference, and during Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ operation against Hamas
violence from Gaza, Hezbollah clearly took the lead and sponsored a
similar gathering. Dr Ali Fayyad, the Director of the Consultative
Centre for Studies and Documentation in Beirut, who hosted the Beirut
Forum, laid out its goals: ‘In this part of the world the
resistance is Islamic. The resistance movement here must introduce
themselves to other forces of resistance to imperialism around the
world. The ideological differences must be postponed. The resistance
must prevail... An important goal of the forum is how, despite the
ideological contradictions, to find how to work together hand in hand
to achieve unity against imperialism’.
The Beirut International Forum for Resistance, Anti-Imperialism, Solidarity between Peoples and Alternatives, held from 16 to 18
January 2009, assembled 400 delegates from all continents. The
largest number of delegates came from the Arab world, including the
Ba’ath and Communist Parties of Syria and Iran, but there were
also many from Latin America, including 30 from the Bolivarian
Republic of Venezuela. Guests from Venezuela comprised members of
parliament, unionists and youth from both the United Socialist Party
(PSUV) and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).
A prime organiser of the conference was Mohamed Kassem, a leader of
the Lebanese teachers’ union. ‘For the first time, in
Lebanon’, he said, ‘we have created a platform for
struggling people all over the world, secular, nationalist, leftist
and Islamic to speak their views and work together, against the wars
in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, against the threats to Iran and
the sanctions on Sudan, against the blockade of Cuba and the attempts
to block the revolutionary direction in Venezuela, Bolivia and across
Latin America... We are building mechanisms of international
cooperation and South-South solidarity, and we plan to intensify
those efforts in the future’. This Forum, where Latin America,
Asia and the Near East were strongly represented, embodied the spirit
of the Tri-continental.
The final declaration of the conference, besides the usual anti-Israeli and anti-American resolutions, related to specific Latin
American issues. It saluted ‘Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
as well as Bolivian President Evo Morales for their support for the
peoples’ resistance’ and expressed ‘total support
with the struggle of these two leaders against any intervention of
the United States in Latin America’. It called for the lifting
of the blockade on Cuba and the release of Cuban prisoners held in US
prisons and it condemned ‘the alliance between the USA and the
neofascist government of Colombia that for four decades has
terrorized its own people and worked to destabilize the progressive
governments of Latin America’ and declared ‘their support
to the revolutionary movements in struggle against this regime’.
In the opening session Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary Sheik Naim Kassem ‘captured the common spirit of the assembly: Today there
are only two camps in the world. The one of US imperialism and its
allies and the other one of the resistances; regardless of their
ideological, cultural or religious affiliation. The resistances must
be unified against its common enemy. This is only possible by respecting the diversity of the resistance movements’.
Although planned long ahead of the war in Gaza, the entire event was marked by a ‘profound support of the Palestinian resistance
struggle in Gaza’. Nobody, not even the forces present from
non-Islamic countries, used Hamas’ leadership of the resistance
in Gaza as a pretext to reject support for the resistance, as had
been common in the past. However, notes a radical leftist reporter,
‘[c]areful participants of the Beirut Forum could notice a
certain wariness to lend the same support to the Iraqi and Afghan
resistance as they do for Palestine. This wariness is due to the
interests of Iran as a regional power; interests which do conflict
with these resistances. Given Iran’s record of support to the
Iraqi regime installed by the US occupiers the message by the Iranian
president to the forum rightly denouncing the Arab regimes which
follow Israeli and US interest as traitors appears somewhat vapid’.
A representative of the Turkish conservative Islamist group Ozgur
Der at the Beirut Forum asked the participants to
reach and build bridges of understanding between opposition forces;
to ‘globalise activist networks from IT workers to European
Muslim minorities, from Gaza to local activists of Vancouver, from
suburbs of Somalia to poor people of Harlem, from oppressed Kurdish
people of Turkey to mine workers of Nigeria, from EZLN of Mexico to
MNLF of Philippines, from HAMAS to European left, from Venezuela to
Again and again, the importance of the Venezuelan link to Iran and its ‘revolutionary’ global role was stressed during this
multi-national radical forum. Although the reports spoke of ‘many
participants from Latin America’, according to the list of 100
adherents to the event only Venezuela was represented, possibly by
some 30 people from ‘De Primera Mano Venezuela’,
‘Azequiel Zamora Venezuela’ and ‘APORREAR
According to an official report of the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information, the Grupo Parlamentario
Venezolano del Parlamento Latinoamericano (Parlatino, GPVPL)
‘actively participated’ in the Beirut Forum. Deputies of
the GPVPL, such as Víctor Chirinos, Carolus Winmer, Víctor
Hugo Morales, Yul Jabour and Vidal Cisneros, participated in the
‘event of solidarity to the Palestinian people and against the
genocide committed by the Israeli army’.
Carolus Wimmer, Vice-president of the GPVPL and Secretary for International Relations
of the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV), hailed the support given
at the conference to President Chávez for his ‘courageous’
decision to sever diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Israel,
asked all the ‘progressive’ governments around the world
to follow Venezuela’s and Bolivia's example in this and asked
for an oil embargo against Israel and the expulsion of the Jewish
state from the United Nations.
This long paper gives a glimpse of the extensive Iranian and Hezbollah presence and activity in Latin America. The problem with
this presence and activity is that it goes beyond the normal
political, economic, social and cultural levels and creeps into the
dangerous area of terrorism and subversion, threatening not only
outside actors and interests but possibly the very stability of the host countries.
It is evident that Iran’s political and strategic standing in Latin America strengthens the Tehran regime and diminishes the
possibility of UN-backed international diplomatic and economic
pressure to convince it to renounce its nuclear project. Thus,
indirectly at least, it enhances the threat of Iran’s nuclear
hegemonic projection vis-à-vis the moderate Arab states, with
all that this means for the stability of the Middle East, the
stability of oil prices and nuclear proliferation to other states in
the region. The Bolivian decision to move its Embassy from Cairo to Tehran is one small move in this direction.
The proved Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the worst terrorist attacks on the continent, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a bad omen
for the future. In the event of Iran’s vital interests –such
as the survival of its nuclear project– being threatened by the
international community, by the US alone or by Israel, Latin America
would be a preferred ground for retaliation, directly or with Hezbollah’s support.
The Hezbollah leadership could decide, based on its practical immunity in the past, that to avenge the death of the arch-terrorist
Imad Mughniyeh or some serious incident on the border with Israel
would be easy in Latin America. Recently it became known that such
attempts have been foiled in Azerbaijan and in an unnamed European country.
In the longer term, exporting radical Shiite ideological and religious teaching could serve to influence large sectors of society,
especially the poorest and most deprived, and thus add another
element of instability and radicalisation in a continent already
plagued by socio-economic hardship. Growing anti-Semitism, as
witnessed lately in Venezuela, could add to the existing sectarian turmoil in some countries.
And what if Iran were to decide to deploy its long-range missiles in Venezuela at the request of President Chávez, if he were to
feel threatened? Given Chávez’s invitation to the
Russian Navy to visit his country, such a nightmarish scenario might be possible.
Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzlyia, Israel