Iran’s Top Export to Latin America: Radical Islam
Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, who openly calls for the “annihilation of Zionism” and has promoted friendly relations with the Taliban, arrived in São Paulo, Brazil and discussed how Muslims can fight “radical terrorism”. Araki holds a senior position within Iran’s clerical regime; his pretense of being an opponent of extremism perfectly captures how Iran has sought to depict itself as an ally of the West in its battle against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. In fact, the opposite is true. Araki’s visit is yet another demonstration of how the Iranian regime is busy exporting its own brand of radical Islam, in order to radicalize Shi’a expatriate communities while spreading Tehran’s influence in the region.
The hosts for Araki’s lecture in Brazil on July 29th were none other than local Hezbollah-linked religious centers that promote Iran’s Islamic revolution. Guests from across the continent included Latin American and Iranian clerics who are disciples of Mohsen Rabbani, Iran’s former cultural attaché in Latin America and the mastermind of Argentina’s 1994 AMIA terrorist attack that left 85 dead at a Jewish center.
Since the 1980s, Tehran has worked diligently to create the infrastructure for both overt and covert operations in the Western Hemisphere. Araki’s visit is part of a well-orchestrated plan to indoctrinate and radicalize existing Shi’a communities while seeking new acolytes among local sympathizers of Iran’s political agenda.
Brazil is not the only target of Iran’s efforts. Across the region, Iranian preachers and their local enablers have presented themselves as advocates of human rights and social justice to gain footholds among disenfranchised and marginalized communities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru. Relying on allies such as Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Iran has established forward operating bases for the spread of their propaganda.
A case in point is Edwar Quiroga Vargas, a Peruvian indigenous rights activist who has adopted Iran’s incendiary rhetoric upon converting to Shi’a Islam. Through introductions made by an Iranian diplomat, Quiroga discovered Shi’a Islam at a 2009 conference in Bolivia sponsored by the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), a trade bloc founded by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in which Iran participates as an observer state. Soon after, Quiroga travelled to Iran for three months, where he studied under Rabbani. Upon returning to Peru, Quiroga established Inkarri-Islam, the country’s first Shi’a Islamic cultural center.
Inkarri-Islam perfectly encapsulates the Iranian strategy of blending traditional indigenous teachings with revolutionary Shi’a Islam by capitalizing on loose parallels in historical narratives. By juxtaposing similar narratives like Shi’a Muslim’s belief in the return of the Mahdi with indigenous myths such as the return of the Inca, Quiroga built his cultural center a façade of legitimacy while pursuing a radical agenda on Iran’s behalf. As seen in its mission statement, Inkarri-Islam calls for the liberation of the Incas from “Zionist colonization” and hopes that the “cleansing and extinction of the Zionist state” will propitiate the rise of their political redeemer.
Antisemitism is never far from hatred for Israel. True to form, Quiroga has publicly accused “300 Jewish Zionist bankers” of holding the economy of 31 million Peruvians hostage. He is on record accusing Israeli Mossad agents of having carried out the AMIA bombing. And he has declared his readiness to serve as “a soldier of Islam” on behalf of Iran’s revolution, a pledge he may seek to fulfill through the political party he recently established in Peru, which he called Partido de Dios – or Hezbollah in Spanish.
Quiroga is not an isolated phenomenon, and not only because since 2011, he has opened five more cultural centers across Peru and overseen nearly twenty-five students who have traveled to Iran to attend Rabbani’s religious programs in Qom. Iranian cultural centers and their Iranian-trained local converts promote a similar radical agenda across Latin America and, indeed, globally. The Iranian backed center in Santiago de Chile, for example, offers a Spanish translation of writings by French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy and many centers across the continent routinely promote conspiracy theories through social media and glorify the terror organization Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Spanish-language media such as HispanTV spread revolutionary and anti-imperialist themes.
Ultimately, Iran threatens the national security of the U.S. and its allies with its spread of anti-Zionist hatred and Islamic revolutionary rhetoric to the Western Hemisphere. The networks established by Iran do not just promote hate speech; they are intimately involved in criminal enterprises such as narco-trafficking to generate tens of millions of dollars to fund Hezbollah and other Iranian clients.
Despite strong religious intolerance and hate speech laws, the Brazilian government allowed Araki’s visit, stirring outrage in the country’s religious communities. This trip should be the last of its kind for any Iranian clerics promoting radicalization and hatred. Latin American governments should take stock of Iranian-backed radical activities such as his lecture tour and work closely with local governments and organizations to prevent the spread of Iranian-backed extremism in Latin America, especially under the conceit of moderation.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Michaela Frai is a Research Associate.