Iranian and Hezbollah Operations in South America: Then and Now

By Levitt, Matthew | Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Iranian and Hezbollah Operations in South America: Then and Now


Levitt, Matthew, Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations


Since at least the early 1980s, Iran has operated an intelligence network in Latin America - Hezbollah soon followed suit. Iran and Hezbollah leveraged support from these networks to carry out the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Despite the public exposure of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in this deadly attack, both continue to develop intelligence and logistical support networks in the region without restraint. While the initial investigation into the AMIA bombing suffered from corruption and mismanagement, it was rejuvenated with the appointment of special prosecutors Marcelo Burgos and Alberto Nisman, who reinvestigated the case from the very beginning (Burgos would later leave this office, but Nisman would stay on until his untimely death in January 2015). In addition to identifying key new suspects and gathering evidence that firmly placed Iran and Hezbollah behind the bombing, the office of the special prosecutor uncovered evidence of Iranian efforts to "export the revolution" across South America.

Tensions over the AMIA bombing and the indictment of senior Iranian officials for their roles in the attack resulted in poor diplomatic relations between Argentina and Iran for many years. Then, in 2007, Argentine representatives suddenly ceased their years-long policy of walking out of UN meetings whenever an Iranian official spoke. Despite the standing Argentinean indictments of Iranian officials, Argentina and Iran agreed in 2011 to form a "truth commission" to jointly investigate the 1994 bombing. The merits of this "partnership" were questionable from the outset, but were cast into severe doubt with Nisman's mysterious death in 2015. Nisman filed charges that the Argentinean administration, specifically President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, planned a cover-up of Iran and Hezbollah's role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for a political deal between the government of Iran and Argentina. The day before Nisman was due to present his case to the Argentine parliament, he was found dead in his apartment. Despite his tragic and untimely death, the work Nisman and his team had already conducted exposed not only the circumstances behind the AMIA attack, but Iran's ongoing intelligence operations in South America - and at a time when Hezbollah's activities in the region are on the rise. This article will explore the origins of Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Latin America, which dates back to the 1980s, and examine their continued and growing influence today.

Iran and Hezbollah Arrive in South America

Throughout the Lebanese Civil War (19751990) large numbers of Lebanese immigrants arrived in South America. Hezbollah and Iran both exploited this refugee migration by planting numerous agents and recruiting sympathizers among Arab and Muslim immigrants on the continent. Their efforts led to the establishment of formal terrorist cells throughout the region, which ultimately enabled them to carry out several deadly terror attacks in Argentina in the 1990s.1

One notable Iranian operative who immigrated to South America in the 1980s was Mohsen Rabbani. Rabbani arrived in Argentina on a tourist visa in 1983 and permanently settled in Buenos Aires. In spite of his status as a tourist, he initially served as a representative of the Iranian Ministry of Meat.2 After arriving in the country, however, Rabbani began teaching religion and became heavily involved with the at-Tauhid mosque. He reportedly maintained ties with the Iranian government by serving as a member of the Islamic Propaganda Organization, which was charged with identifying groups and individuals that sympathized with the "envisaged terrorist activities."3 Rabbani eventually assumed leadership of the at-Tauhid mosque and began to search for potential targets for Iranian-backed terror attacks. During later testimony, three of Rabbani's students at the at-Tauhid mosque remarked that he had told them in 1990 to "export the revolution, and that 'we are all Hezbollah. …

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