Across Latin America, Iran presents itself as a very normal country wanting to deliver its culture and share it with ordinary people.
Mosques and cultural centers want to show Iran´s point: “We are peaceful and we want to spread peace all over the world.”
Iran wants to distract from its nuclear race and the terrorist attacks in Argentina in 1992 and 1994.
Venezuela opened its doors to Iran 10 years ago and Iran took advantage of it, directly or through Hezbollah in South and Central America. But, Iran envisioned that allies like Venezuela or Bolivia may not endure forever as authoritarian regimes, so it has also advanced its agenda with mosques and missionaries.
Tehran’s use of clerics as unofficial agents of the Iranian revolution started in the 1980s and Latin America was not forgotten in this field. The first cleric to reach Latin America was Mohsen Rabbani, who, in 1983, went to Argentina to lead the Al-Tawhid mosque and serve as a halal meat inspector in Buenos Aires. Both tasks appeared innocent, but Rabbani was deeply involved in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured over 300.
In 1984, Sheikh Taleb Hussein al-Khazraji made his way to Brazil. Both Rabbani and Khazraji were cited by the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman (found dead in his apartment a year and a half ago, two days before he was expected to present criminal charges against the former Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner) in his 2013 report on Iran’s Latin American networks.
According to Nisman, “Interpol [Brasilia] informed that Khazraji was an employee of the Iranian government and ... was engaged in recruiting highly politicized believers to get them close to Teheran.”
Though Rabbani left Latin America due to the accusation of his involvement in the AMIA bombing, he continues to run his recruitment program from Iran’s center of religious learning in Qom.
Khazraji remains in the Shia community of São Paulo, Brazil, where he pursues his “clerical tasks.”
According to a very serious investigation of Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert in Islamic penetration in Latin America, “another cleric reportedly linked to Hezbollah is Sheikh Ghassan Youssef Abdallah. Abdallah is active in Chile, in Brazil (frequently visiting the tri-border area), and in Paraguay (where he once ran the Iranian mosque in Ciudad Del Este).”
Ottolenghi explains: “They are not alone. Alongside dozens of Iranian and Lebanese Shia clerics, there is also a new generation of locally born clerics who have joined their ranks. Converts are routinely sent to Qom, all expenses paid, to attend Iranian seminaries specially tailored to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, before they return home to act as Iran’s unofficial emissaries in their countries of birth.”
During his term, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the region numerous times, attempting to influence the region, including: Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua. Iranian influence and Hezbollah activities use religious envoys to deliver messages of hate toward the Jewish people and Israel.
In June 2014, the Imam Ali mosque in Curitiba hosted a well-attended memorial service for a young Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in March 2014. His Brazilian uncle, wearing a Hezbollah scarf, led the memorial, and praised his nephew as a martyr.
Latin American governments should recognize the threat posed by a foreign power spreading hatred to local populations.
The bombings in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, the freedom of Hezbollah members to traffic drugs in Venezuela and Central America, the anti-Semitic hatred in social media; the murder of a Jewish businessman this year in Uruguay, stabbed by a converted Islamist who said “he had received a call from Allah to kill a Jew,” are enough examples of hate crime, terrorism and hate speech.
And hate crimes and hate speech are a threat for all countries and their populations. If governments and civil society recognize that everybody is under threat, more tragedies could be avoided.
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