The leaked Discord documents revealed that Iran and its allies in Syria are arming and training militants for “a new phase of lethal attacks against US troops in the country,” using powerful armor-piercing roadside bombs.
Meanwhile, some 10,000 miles away, Iran has been building a network to challenge America in its own backyard. While China’s activities in the Americas have received significant attention, Iran, the only foreign power responsible for recent attacks on American citizens, is also hard at work undermining US interests in Central and South America.
Iran’s pursuit of global influence is nothing new, and countering its influence in the Middle East has been a longstanding goal of US policy. But in recent years, Tehran has stepped up its efforts to expand its presence in Latin America.
From Mexico to Chile, the unimaginable has become a reality: a nation hostile to the US is exerting its influence just miles away from American soil.
Why Latin America?
The answer is rooted in Iran’s strategic goals, of which two are preeminent: evading US sanctions and creating a network of allies to counterbalance Washington. By increasing its clout in a region where anti-US sentiment is easily stirred, Iran aims to establish an “anti-US axis of resistance.”
To achieve its mission of expanding influence in the Western Hemisphere, Iran employs various tactics. It has developed intricate networks for evading sanctions, utilizing front companies, exchange houses, and other mechanisms to sustain trade relationships with targeted businesses in the region.
Iran has also established an extensive web of ties through diplomacy, trade, and economic aid. The country maintains numerous embassies and consulates across Latin America, which it can use to facilitate sanctions evasion, provide cover for Iranian officials and businesses, and help coordinate intelligence activities.
To Venezuela, another nation boxed in by US sanctions, Iran offers economic support to help revitalize its oil industry. In 2020, Iran’s prominent retail chain, Megasis, opened a store in Caracas. Additionally, the countries signed a 20-year deal covering political, cultural, tourism, economic, oil, and petrochemical fields, leading to the manufacturing of thousands of Iranian automobiles in Venezuela.
In Nicaragua, Iran committed $350 million to assist in constructing the country’s first deep-water port, as well as $120 million for a hydropower plant project.
Bribery, Cartels, and Propaganda
Iran has not hesitated to use bribery. In several incidents, the US Department of Justice has brought charges against Iranian companies or individuals for bribing officials in Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Tehran’s criminal activities are not confined to bribery, as the country has a long history of transnational crime and state-sponsored terrorism. The DEA has found evidence linking Iran-funded terrorist organization Hezbollah to drug trafficking operations involving Colombian, Mexican, Brazilian, and Venezuelan cartels, earning some $2 billion annually while likely gaining indirect influence over corrupt officials.
Furthermore, Iran directly collaborates with cartels, even at the highest levels of its military leadership. The Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guard, has a well-known association with cartels in Colombia and Mexico, laundering money and facilitating drug shipments. In 2011, the DEA broke up a plot between the Quds Force and Mexico’s Zetas cartel to bomb the Israeli embassy in DC.
In Argentina and Brazil, Iran has been implicated in bombings targeting Israeli embassies and the Jewish community, killing 114 people and injuring more than 500.
On the propaganda front, one of the most notable efforts is HispanTV, a Spanish-language news channel operated by Iran’s state-controlled broadcaster. Through collaboration with extremist Islamist organizations, HispanTV pours out a steady stream of anti-Western disinformation.
A growing number of Iranian “cultural centers” further expand their influence in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Overt and Covert Military Activity
Some of Iran’s most ominous forays have taken place in the military domain. Extremists from subversive groups receive armed training from Iran-linked terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas.
Tehran has successfully “shown the flag” with a recent navy port visit in Brazil and has undertaken joint war games such as “Sniper Frontier,” a military exercise conducted by Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, and other “axis of resistance” partners.
Covert activities are also evident, such as suspicions of Iranian warships smuggling weapons to Venezuela and instances of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel being intercepted in Argentina’s airspace.
In April, the New York Times reported on leaked US intelligence suggesting recent discussions between Iranian and Nicaraguan officials on enhancing military cooperation to counter American influence in Latin America.
Connect the Dots
Iran has waged a “low-intensity war” with the US since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans, hostage, for 444 days.
The revolutionary regime has openly labeled the US as the Great Satan. Iran has been implicated in bombings of Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and US embassies in Beirut, Kuwait City, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam that killed nearly 300 people and injured thousands. In recent years, Iranian forces have launched over 83 attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria.
America’s two-decade myopic focus on the Middle East has already cost it an opportunity to get ahead of China’s growing influence in Latin America. Nevertheless, the attention to China and Russia is not unwarranted.
China’s presence is strongly felt throughout Central America, and the Honduran shift in allegiance from Taiwan to China was far more of a jolt to the American news media than it was to the Honduran people. China has effectively woven itself into Central America’s culture, commerce, and politics, and the US needs to counter it — but not at the expense of ignoring other threats.
The US is, again, making the grave strategic mistake of taking its eye off a declared adversary who, like Al Qaeda, is telegraphing its intentions. Reports after 9/11 pointed to one critical error: the US allowed Islamist terrorists to establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan where they could train, equip, and indoctrinate.
In Latin America, Iran employs tactics similar to those used by Al Qaeda, establishing centers for planning and executing attacks.
After 9/11, Washington created a network of information and resource sharing to anticipate and prevent future attacks. As the dots come into focus, Iran’s activities in Latin America should be troubling to America’s national security professionals.
There is a strong uptick in military cooperation alongside sophisticated anti-American propaganda. These developments create the infrastructure for training and the recruitment pipeline, both crucial elements for potential terrorist attacks.
Policymakers are laser-focused on the broader dynamics of the Great Power Competition while paying scant attention to the vulnerabilities within the conflict’s “soft gray zone.” It is essential to recognize that America’s two-decade War on Terrorism inadvertently provided the breathing room that allowed Russia to rebuild, China to surge, and Iran to ready its bomb.
Dominique L. Plewes is Chairperson of Special Operations Forces (SOF) Support, dedicated to educating Americans on the purposes and uses of our special operations forces.
This article is the result of research conducted in Central America.