The Mexican law student was surprised by how easy it was to get into Iran two years ago. By merely asking questions about Islam at a party, he managed to pique the interest of Iran’s top diplomat in Mexico. Months later, he had a plane ticket and a scholarship to a mysterious school in Iran, as a guest of the Islamic Republic.
Next came the start of classes and a second surprise: There were dozens of others just like him.
“There were 25 or 30 of us in my class, all from Latin America,” recalled the student, who was just 19 when he arrived at the small institute that styled itself an Iranian madrassa for Hispanics. “I met Colombians, Venezuelans, multiple Argentines.” Many were new Muslim converts, he said, and all were subject to an immersion course, in perfect Spanish, in what he described as “anti-Americanism and Islam.”
The student, whose first name is Carlos but who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, left for home only three months later. But his brief Iranian adventure provides a window into an unusual outreach program by Iran, one that targets young adults from countries south of the U.S. border. In recent years, the program has brought hundreds of Latin Americans to Iran for intensive Spanish-language instruction in Iranian religion and culture, much of it supervised by a man who is wanted internationally on terrorism charges, according to U.S. officials and experts.
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They describe the program as part of a larger effort by Iran to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere by building a network of supporters and allies in America’s backyard. The initiative includes not only the recruitment of foreign students for special study inside Iran, but also direct outreach to Latin countries through the construction of mosques and cultural centers and, beginning last year, a new cable-TV network that broadcasts Iranian programming in Spanish.
Regional experts say such “soft power” initiatives are mainly political, intended in particular to strengthen Tehran’s foothold in countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador, which share similar anti-American views. But in some cases, Iranian officials have sought to enlist Latin Americans for espionage and even hacking operations targeting U.S. computer systems, according to U.S. and Latin American law-enforcement and intelligence officials.
A report issued in May by an Argentine prosecutor cited evidence of “local clandestine intelligence networks” organized by Iran in several South American countries.
Singled out in the report is an Iranian cleric and government official, Mohsen Rabbani, who runs several programs in Iran for Latin American students, including the one attended by Carlos. A former cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, Rabbani was accused by Argentina of aiding the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in that city that killed 85 people, the country’s deadliest terrorist attack.
Rabbani has denied any role in the bombing or any other terrorist operation.
But Rabbani has made no secret of his interest in drawing in young Latin Americans who admire Iran’s fiery defiance of the West. A report for Congress by IBI Consultants, a Washington-based research company that advises U.S. government agencies on Latin American terrorism and drug-trafficking networks, estimated that more than 1,000 people from the region have undergone training, mostly under Rabbani’s supervision, in Iran since 2007.
Carlos was struck by the effectiveness of a program that isolated a small group of foreign students and subjected them to weeks of theological and political indoctrination. He recalled how some classmates who had seemed merely curious about Iran and its religion ended their study as committed disciples.
What exactly the Iranians saw in Carlos is not clear, even to him. When he encountered his first Iranian government official, at an embassy reception in 2010, he spoke no Farsi and knew little about the country or its religion beyond what he had seen on TV.
At the time of the diplomatic party, Carlos was enrolled as a first-year student in the law program of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Mustering his courage, he introduced himself to Mohammad Ghadiri, the Iranian ambassador, and blurted out that he was interested in learning about Islam. The diplomat
invited him to the embassy and mentioned a special course in Iran that had been set up for Latin American university students just like Carlos. If he was willing, the Iranians would pay for everything, the ambassador said.
He was given plane tickets and a letter of acceptance for the Iranian school he would be attending, the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute, in the ancient city of Qom.
Of the institute’s director he knew nothing, having never heard of Rabbani or his alleged ties to terrorism in Argentina and elsewhere. Later he would encounter the former cultural attaché at the school and learn of his prominence on Iranian television programs and websites, where Rabbani is a tireless proponent of exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution to the Spanish-speaking world.
In addition to the training centers he runs, Rabbani helped start Iran’s largest Spanish-language website and was instrumental in launching HispanTV, a cable network that broadcasts Iranian programs and commentary in Spanish. Rabbani would boast in a 2011 interview of having shattered “the American myth” by helping drive Latin American opinion away from the West and toward Iran’s vision of revolutionary Islam.
After landing at the airport in Tehran, Carlos was promptly met by a Spanish-speaking escort and a driver who took him to Qom, the center for Shiite theological study for half a millennium. There he found himself surrounded by Spanish-speaking students representing almost every country in the Western Hemisphere.
All of them lived, ate and studied together for three months on a rigorous schedule that rarely allowed them to socialize or mingle with students from a parallel school for European converts in a neighboring building, Carlos said. He described his fellow students as intense, serious and seemingly in the thrall of the school’s religious teachers.
“All the classes were ostensibly religious, but the teachers would interject politics all the time,” Carlos said. “If the subject was economics, the message was about how the United States was manipulating the economy for its own benefit.”
According to Carlos’ account, the institute’s Iranian staff began to view the young Mexican with increasing suspicion, seizing cameras and tape recorders Carlos had brought from home and accusing him of being a spy. Carlos left the school one evening and found his way to the Mexican Embassy in Tehran, where he sought his government’s protection.
Eventually he was allowed to leave for Mexico, but Iranian officials, then and in the months that followed, hinted that they were watching him.
Although he witnessed the daily bombardment of anti-American messages, Carlos said he did not observe overt attempts to recruit students for anything other than learning. Iranian officials insist there weren’t any.
Indeed, the officials are open about their ongoing efforts to attract promising young foreigners through programs such as the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute, and they are hardly alone in doing so. The State Department spends millions of dollars annually on officially sponsored U.S. travel for foreign students as well as budding journalists, politicians and civic leaders.
But for some U.S. officials, the worry is that the increased recruitment is tied to a larger effort to woo not only individuals, but countries. Iran has more than doubled the number of embassies in Latin America since 2005 — from five to 11 — while building 17 cultural centers and numerous mosques throughout the region. Its HispanTV network beams daily into millions of Spanish-speaking households, with programming such as a dramatic series that brings an Islamic perspective to the Christian story of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“Iran is ramping up its strategic messaging to the region,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council, told a recent congressional hearing. The prevailing message is “one that promotes its own ideology and influence at the expense of the United States.”