Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif  tweeted on 17 August that he will visit six Latin American countries beginning today.  Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi noted that Zarif will lead a 60 member delegation on his first visit to the region.  Ravanchi announced that the visit will begin in Cuba on 21 August.  The rest of the itinerary includes Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela in that order.

Iran’s public links in Latin America involve mostly agricultural-related commerce. Latin American countries send food stuffs to Iran and Tehran ships agricultural equipment, rugs, and pharmaceutical products in return.  Ravanchi speculated that Iran hopes to expand economic ties with the Islamic Republic lending its skills in engineering, dam building, housing construction, and dairy farming techniques to South American countries.  He added there might be opportunities for mutually beneficial oil and gas deals.   


However, U.S. intelligence and political sources have a darker view of what Zarif’s trip is all about. Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director, David Shedd states that Iran will seek to establish and expand its cultural centers in these countries.  He adds: “These cultural centers are platforms for nefarious purposes used by the Iranian regime.” Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance directs the activities of some 80 of these centers around the world.  Ostensibly, the centers forge connections with fellow Shia Muslims in foreign countries. But Iranian intelligence agents also use these centers to recruit recent converts to Shia Islam to become sources for Iran in their home countries.

Moreover, these centers link up with Lebanese overseas communities of which there are several in Latin America. The Lebanese Shia diaspora in Ecuador and Venezuela are especially large.  Iranian intelligence agencies exploit these Shia linkages to establish Hezbollah terrorist cells in foreign nations. For instance, in 1992 and 1994, the Iranian Embassy in Argentina used Hezbollah sleeper cells in Buenos Aires to carry out horrific terrorist bombings against Israel’s Embassy and an Argentine Jewish social association respectively.  U.S. intelligence agencies also documented several years ago, the existence of a major Hezbollah revenue-raising headquarters in Paraguay where that country’s border intersects with those of Argentina and Brazil.   

Representative Jeff Duncan, Chair of the Western Hemisphere Sub-Committee of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee shepherded a law through Congress in 2012 called the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act.”  Duncan and others on the Western Hemisphere Sub-committee like Representative Ryan Zinke are attuned to Iran’s more sinister reasons for its efforts to expand relations with countries south of the border. Zinke commented that while on a trip to Quito, Ecuador, he saw posters of Jihadi terrorists hanging along side with Latin American heroes.

The Anti-American orientation of all of the nations on Zarif’s agenda, with the exception of Chile, is   a significant factor which reveals the ideological purpose for the trip. Within the large Iranian delegation there are probably at least a few Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) members. These individuals probably will seek meetings with their counterparts in the host countries on Zarif’s itinerary.

In Cuba, Iran probably hopes to slow growing U.S.-Cuban normalization. Iranian representatives might seek to contact Cuban hard-line ideologues who may oppose Havana’s renewed diplomatic relations with Washington. Moreover, Iranian businessmen will seek to provide much needed consumer goods to the Cuban people. One possible deal may be an agreement to export Iranian made automobiles to Cuba. The automotive industry is Iran’s second largest after oil and gas. Iran’s signature cars for export are the Samand and the Minatour.

In Nicaragua, Tehran will attempt to capitalize on the good will generated by Iran’s 2012 cancellation of Managua’s 164 million dollar debt to the Islamic Republic.  Moreover, the Islamic Republic expects its pro-Iranian socialist President, Daniel Ortega to win a third consecutive term this November, as he is currently far ahead in the polls.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, Zarif’s delegation will attempt to exploit the anti-American and anti-Israeli orientation of these leftist regimes. Ravanchi in a press release prior to his trip, denounced Israel’s alleged attempt to portray the visits as energized by political and military motives. 

Ecuador is Iran’s largest trading partner in Latin America and Iran is funding the construction of two power plants in the country.  Quito was quick to support Iran’s contention that all of its nuclear research is non-military in nature.

Bolivia has deep military ties to Iran. Tehran granted  Bolivia the funds to build and now to maintain its Defense College, “The Alliance of the Americas.”  The College has IRGC members on the faculty. In addition, there are several score IRGC advisors in Bolivia.  Evo Morales, Bolivia’s President also has lent diplomatic support to Iran regarding its ‘peaceful’ nature of its nuclear program. Bolivia was one of three nations visited by former Iranian President Ahmadinejad in 2009. President Evo Morales made a return trip to Iran in 2012. Iran may try to make good on its boast proclaimed this Spring by its Army Commander Major General Ataollah Salehi to send warships to friendly Latin American ports.  

Zarif’s stay in Venezuela will likely proceed with caution. When anti-American demagogue President Hugo Chavez was in power Iran and Venezuela openly discussed the possibility of an Iranian military naval vessels docking in Venezuelan ports. However, the regime’s opposition now control parliament and Venezuela’s new president Nicolas Maduro is not nearly as popular as was his deceased predecessor Chavez.

 In Chile, Santiago and Tehran may announce a decision to elevate their relations to ambassadorial status.

One indicator of Iran’s long range plan to set down roots in Latin America is Tehran’s investment in Spanish language propaganda venues. For example, Iran launched its first Spanish language news website to Latin America in 2012 called Hispan TV.  The precursor of this propaganda organ for Central and South America was Tehran’s establishment of a round-the-clock TV network in Spain also called Hispan TV.  Iranian cultural centers in Latin America urge their followers to access the online programs at Islamoriente.com.