Iran’s ‘invisible army’ in Latin America

Washington is concerned about Iran’s supposedly growing influence in Latin America.

Protesters rally against an Iran-Argentina investigation of the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish centre [EPA]

When contemplating the logistics of a possible war with Iran, it is helpful to consult maps indicating the multitude of US military bases that already encircle a country under crippling economic sanctions.

No similar visual aids are available for Iranian bases in the vicinity of the US, for obvious reasons.

However, there are various ways to compensate for the lack of an apparent Iranian threat in the western hemisphere. One is to blame it on “invisibleness”.

For example, a recent headline on TheBlaze tabloid news site proclaimed: “Iran aggressively recruiting ‘invisible army’ of Latin American converts to infiltrate US through ‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

TheBlaze – founded by political commentator Glenn Beck, who has somehow calculated that ten percent of Muslims are terrorists – attributes news of the “invisible army” to “US officials and national security experts”.

Of course, such alerts have been making the rounds for years courtesy of neoconservatives, Zionists, and other creatures concerned that the Islamic Republic is exporting radical Shia teachings to Latin America, and that the alleged proliferation of Farsi tattoos among imprisoned gang members in the southwestern US confirms the susceptibility of the US-Mexico border to penetration by Iran.

According to TheBlaze, the “invisible army” is being forged via “one website in particular”: As the site is currently inaccessible, it appears that the ruthless conversion campaign has been temporarily stymied, though the islamoriente Twitter account [Sp] continues to spew dangerous rhetoric such as “Oposición de la mayoría de estadounidenses a la intervención militar en Siria’ [“Majority of Americans opposed to military intervention in Syria”].

TheBlaze article quotes a “US official” as reasoning: “Now what [Iran] desire[s] is a proxy terrorist group that can easily slip past US border security. Who’s going to suspect an illegal immigrant from Venezuela, Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter, of being a jihadist?”

As if immigrants didn’t already have enough to deal with before being thrown into the potential-jihadist bracket.

Latin Americans ‘crazy-obsessed’ about Islam

Unnamed “US officials and experts” also star in an August Washington Post report titled: “With lure of religion classes, Iran seeks to recruit Latin Americans.”

The article focuses on the trajectory of a former Mexican law student by the name of Carlos, who in 2010 travelled to Iran on a scholarship from the Iranian government for intensive Spanish-language instruction in Islam and Iranian culture.

Nisman’s determination to hold Iran accountable at all costs has been repeatedly challenged by… Gareth Porter, who in a 2008 report for The Nation questioned Iranian motives for bombing Argentina when the two countries were engaged in negotiations to revive suspended nuclear technology contracts.

As the story goes, the seeds of the arrangement were sown when Carlos attended a reception at the Iranian embassy during his first year at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), “Mustering his courage, he introduced himself to Mohammad Ghadiri, the Iranian ambassador, and blurted out that he was interested in learning about Islam.”

And off he went to the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute in Qom, where he watched as some of his Latin American classmates reportedly became “crazy-obsessed” with Islam. According to Carlos, he himself was accused by the institute’s staff of being a spy and was relieved of his cameras and tape recorders in March 2011, after which he returned to Mexico and is now in the US seeking asylum.

In the second half of the Post article, we learn that “Carlos said he did not observe overt [Iranian] attempts to recruit students for anything other than learning”. The author also concedes that the US State Department “spends millions of dollars annually on officially sponsored US travel for foreign students as well as budding journalists, politicians and civic leaders”.

None of this has prevented the article from being cited in TheBlaze as further proof of Iran’s efforts to infiltrate the “soft belly” of the US.

Another item from 2011 – coincidentally also involving a former UNAM law student who had his recording devices and other gadgets confiscated after completing a course of study in Iran – underscores the permeability of Iran’s own belly.

This particular student, named Jose Carlos Garcia Tolentino, is one of the protagonists of a pseudo-documentary named La amenaza Irani [“The Iranian Threat”] – which aired on the prominent US Spanish-language broadcast network Univision. The network is owned by Univision Communications Inc, whose chairman Haim Saban does things like throw parties in honour of the Israel Defence Forces.

Part of a UNAM group allegedly intent on exposing Iran’s plans for cyber-terrorism and other attacks on the US via Latin America, Garcia Tolentino faked a conversion to Islam in order to travel to Iran. In a Univision interview bearing the title “That is how I infiltrated Iran”, he recounts what he learned on his trip, for example: the Iranians want to replace all governments in the world with their own and that they love killing themselves and others in the name of Allah.

The programme’s attempt to paint an almost apocalyptic picture of Iranian designs is meanwhile countered by former ambassador Ghadiri, who claims in the film that the contingent from UNAM proposed a cyber-attack on the US to his embassy but that “we refused… they seemed to me to be CIA agents”.

The State Department’s underperformance

One product of the campaign to transform Iran into a direct threat to the US is the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012“, passed last December, which required the State Department to assess and formulate a strategy for dealing with Iranian behaviour in the region.

According to the assessment submitted by the department in June 2013, “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning”. This was clearly not the answer sought by the act’s author, Representative Jeff Duncan, Chairman of the Subcommitee on Oversight and Management Efficiency within the House Committee on Homeland Security.

As Jim Lobe, Washington Bureau Chief for the Inter Press Service, has noted, Duncan – who “spoke on a panel on Evangelical Christian support for Israel at AIPAC’s annual conference last year” – berated the State Department for its conclusions during a July subcommittee hearing indignantly titled “Threat to the Homeland: Iran’s Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere“.

In Duncan’s view, the department had failed to take into account the conclusions of a 502-page report by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, which, as Lobe points out, was “released (perhaps not entirely coincidentally) just one month before the State Department was due to submit its study”.

The summary of the report specifies:

“The cultural, religious and propagation activities conducted by [Irans] agents abroad… have its ultimate result [sic] in the construction of intelligence stations with the capability to provide logistic, economic and operative support to terrorist attacks decided by the Islamic regime.”

A study of Nisman’s track record, however, reveals that his credibility was long ago forfeited. The chief prosecutor in the deadly 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, Nisman’s determination to hold Iran accountable at all costs has been repeatedly challenged by award-winning investigative historian and journalist Gareth Porter, who in a 2008 report for The Nation questioned Iranian motives for bombing Argentina when the two countries were engaged in negotiations to revive suspended nuclear technology contracts.

In more recent reports, Porter demonstrates that Nisman’s indictment of the Iranian government in the AMIA case was based entirely on allegations made by the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a virulently anti-government organisation with “an unsavoury history of terrorist bombings against civilian targets in Iran”, and by an Iranian defector described by the former head of the FBI’s Hezbollah office as a money-focused fellow prepared to “provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran”.

TheBlaze notes that, “[i]n August, the US State Department decided to order a new review of Iranian terror activity in Latin America, based on [Nisman’s report] on Iran’s terrorist strategy in the region”.

After all, it’s no fun going to war with an invisible army if it’s actually real.


Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work , released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog , Salon , The Baffler , Al Akhbar English and many other publications.


Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez