Iranian Strategic Influence in the Hemisphere: Threats to the Homeland
(Joseph M. Humire, March 12, 2013, 7:30 – 8:45 p.m.)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Joseph M. Humire is the Executive Director of the Center for a Secure Free Society. As a global security expert specializing in asymmetric warfare, Mr. Humire has produced leading research and investigations on Islamic extremism and Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere, as well as other topics. His work is frequently sought after by various entities within the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence community, as well as prominent think tanks and universities throughout the Americas. Moreover, Humire is an eight-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps having served combat tours in Iraq and Liberia, as well as taking part in the multinational training exercise in Latin America and the Caribbean: UNITAS 45-04.
Iran is the most ardent state sponsor of terror in the world. The Western Hemisphere has been victim of Iranian terror in the past, and these attacks paved the way for the growing presence of radical Islamists and Iranian revolutionary guards in Latin America. In the past five years, there have been at least two clear-cut cases in which the Islamic Republic has used Latin America to stage attempted terrorist attacks within the United States. Joseph Humire will look at the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah in Latin America, including not only military to military cooperation but also their extensive information operations as well as criminal activities and how these might impact U.S. homeland security.
This is pretty much mostly an informational brief. I’m not going to make a lot of positions on whether policy wise here. We had a great policy discussion this morning on Iraq and so my brain is fried as far as the how’s and the why’s and the for’s but this is purely informational because I think the first step to understand the nature of a threat, which this could be identified very much as a threat, is to understand what’s the context and what’s the actual lay of the land.
You know, most people when they think about Iran and Latin America, most regional analysts will tend to look at the precedent being in Argentina. Argentina in 1992 had one of its first major Islamic terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Two years later, there was another bombing. This is actually a very heated conversation right now in Argentina because they are kind of talking about doing another investigation on something that was investigated many times before, on the bombing of an Israeli cultural center, AMIA, which together killed about 114 people, injured hundreds more.
Argentina is in many ways Latin America’s 9/11 before we had our 9/11. It was the largest Islamic terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere before 9/11, so when people point to that – these are some pictures of some of the carnage. These are the individuals. There was an investigation that occurred obviously after the attack but was kind of fumbled. There’s really no conclusion after that. There was a lot of corruption. Nobody really understood what happened. Fingers pointed in a lot of directions.
In the mid-2000s, they initiated another investigation to look back and see and this was led by a gentleman named Alberto Nisman. And Alberto Nisman gathered a team and they looked and they kind of reinvestigated all the files and opened the files and all fingers and all roads led to Iran through the proxy of Hezbollah and so those eight individuals are eight Iranians who have been implicated in this attack and have indictments through the Argentinian government and have Red Notices through Interpol, so they’re actually not allowed to be in Argentina or else they’ll be subject to arrest and questioning from the Argentinian government.
Some of these individuals you probably recognize. They’re very high level. This is gentleman on the right is Ahmad Vahidi, the current Minister of Defense of Iran. At the time, he was actually Commander of the Quds Force at the time of the attack.
But one individual that I like to focus on, he’s very key to the current play of Iran’s foray into Latin America, is this gentleman right here, Mohsen Rabbani. Those of you in the law enforcement world or in the intelligence world know this gentleman very well. He’s been kind of one of Iran’s top spies, all around the world really, but in Latin America more than anything, and he was by the investigators in Argentina that did this investigation and concluded he was considered the mastermind of the attack, so he wasn’t just another actor or a sort of a conduit or an interlude. He was the guy who kind of concealed how he could make this happen in establishing the plausible deniability, so that Iran can get away with this attack and have no fingerprints.
And so he came to Argentina in 1983 under the guise of a businessman and then later about I think it less than a year, I think it was a few months before the attack they gave him diplomatic status and he became a cultural attache and then he left immediately after the attack and he’s currently in Iran in Qom, teaching classes, so he would be a focal point of this presentation.
Okay, that’s twenty years ago or more of the attack in Argentina, so there’s some precedent there but there’s some more recent history, especially in the last few years about some of Iran’s activities in Latin America. One of the most recent is October 2011 when you probably read this on the headlines.
There was a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir. That was reportedly through an Iranian-American individual, this gentleman, Manssor Arbabsiar, and he was reportedly working with an alleged member of a Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. The problem was the person he actually was working with was an informant for the DEA. He wasn’t an actual Los Zetas member and that individual then turned him in and then they interrogated him. They actually arrested him in JFK airport and he gave up basically his Iranian handler. His Iranian handler is a gentleman who is still at large, Gholam Shakuri, who is alleged Quds Force.
What this actually did more than anything was kind of open a Pandora’s box. Many analysts, law enforcement, intel, as far as just think tank analysts started to just say ‘what’s going on in Latin America?’ You know, a lot of guys that, you know, I consider myself to be something of a more regional Latin American analyst and I started opening the door to people that are looking at terrorism issues, looking at Iran, and to say what is going on over there that we have not heard about. So this kind of opened the doors of Latin America and Iran and kind of merged those two. What is the connection, why are they there, and what is actually going on?
Actually, before that, before October 2011 in May of 2011 there was actually another incident that I think was even more concerning, which was when they arrested a group from Trinidad in JFK airport, and the plot was actually to blow up JFK airport by planting bombs within the fuel lines underneath the airport. Now, they never even came close, and actually, from the junket they actually said that it was kind of one of those where they were setting them up to do it and looking to try to get some other [person], kind of baiting them to come in and just open their network up to dismantle the network.
One of the gentlemen in here – this is actually taken from the District Attorney’s file in New York. Abdul Kadir is a Guyanese MP or was at least a Guyanese MP, so he was a parliamentarian in the Guyanese government, and he is probably the primary individual that is implicated in this attack. The other two individuals are from Trinidad. Karim Ibrahim is known as an imam in one of their bigger mosques in Trinidad. He is one of the prominent figures in Islam in the Caribbean.
If you look at page three of the junket, it talks about Kadir’s relationship with Mohsen Rabbani, and in fact, when they arrested Kadir, he was on his way from Trinidad to Venezuela, supposedly to meet with Mohsen Rabbani and to talk about how they were going to carry out this attack, and that is where Mohsen Rabbani became much more plugged in. I mean everything up until that point was, okay, he was an actor twenty years ago, but this is May 2011. And reportedly he was supposed to meet him in Venezuela, which means that Mohsen Rabbani was going to find his way to Venezuela and have a sit down and chat.
So with that kind of background as an overview, [I want to say that] a lot of commentators on this issue have made a lot of statements and looked at it from a very superficial level in the sense that they look at all of the bilateral talks that Iran makes and all of the agreements that they sign with these Latin American countries and the truth of it is that most of it never happens. They sign energy deals, they sign mining agreements, they sign banking agreements, and half of it never comes to fruition.
And so I guess that conventional wisdom in that sense is, well, this must be political posturing. Iran needs to look like they are not isolated, they have allies (Leftists, Communists, populists) in Latin America so they can pump their chest and say we have friends, the U.S. cannot completely isolate us or Israel [cannot isolate us]. But I think that is the wrong calculus. The calculus should be if Iran is not doing what they say they are doing, that does not mean they are not doing anything.
To me, that shows they are probably doing something that is below the surface. That means all of these agreements (these are estimated numbers, but 500 or so agreements) and upwards of $40 billion, that is a cover for a more nefarious activity, what I will probably lump into asymmetric activities in Latin America.
A little bit on the interests: through the years Iran has kind of incrementally increased its exposure as well as its involvement in different Latin American countries on the formal level. This is part of those agreements. The other part of that is opening embassies and creating a formal presence in places that they did not have it before.
There are three points I want to make with this slide. The first is the most obvious, which is the flag that stands out. It is Venezuela all day, every day, Bolivia, Ecuador, and this is what is known as the Group of the Bolivarian Alliance, the Alba Group. It is essentially Hugo Chávez’s regional power bloc. Actually, I should say Hugo Chávez and Raul Castro’s regional power bloc to shift the balance of power in Latin America. [They have been] fairly successful, I might add. And essentially what they have is that is the gateway. They have kind of opened the door, they rolled out the welcome mat, and allowed Iran to come into the region.
But I want to make another point in the sense that the relationship does not start with Venezuela, and that is a lot of times lost on some of the analysts or some of my Latin American analyst colleagues, who tend to focus on Venezuela and see this relationship starts with Venezuela and, especially now in light of Hugo Chávez and his passing, that people will say, okay, Hugo Chávez is dead, that must mean that the Latin American-Iran connection will dissipate.
The relationship started with Castro way before Chávez came to power. I mean the first Iranian Embassy in Latin America was in Havana in 1984, that is when the relationship started to form. Castro traveled to Iran on several occasions to consult, and to advise, and to show solidarity. I mean there are purported reports of him actually being closely involved in the development of the Revolutionary Guards as kind of like an advisor, so Castro has been involved in this movement for a very long time, and you know even the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who we all remember because of the Iran-Contra [scandal], were involved with the Islamic Revolution before Chávez even got involved.
The other point I want to make is there is also non-ALBA countries. Notice I could not put all the flags on this slide, but there are also non-ALBA countries that are engaged with Iran, most notably I would say Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. For people who are not as familiar with Latin America, Brazil is probably the bigger country that you have heard of, one of them relative to Mexico, but it is a geopolitical player, right, the BRIC. It is a geopolitical player in the world. It is definitely one of the prominent players in Latin America, and Brazil in essence is in a way the geopolitical prize for Iran. If Iran was able to court Brazil into kind of moving in a direction that they would like, that would be significant inroads in their region.
There has been a kind of shift in Brazilian politics in their policy stance towards Iran. The Lula government was much more sympathetic, you know they had a much closer relationship. The Dilma Rousseff government has been much more distant. They have actually kept a bit of space between them and [the] Islamic Republic. But I should say in my few trips to Brazil in the last few years, talking to Brazilian officials that have worked on this issue or talking to the ABIN, their intelligence operatives – I will give you what they told me. The way they describe it, they say there is a change in the retail but not the wholesale, so in essence what they are saying to me is there is a rhetorical shift in what Dilma says about Iran, but the activities that are going on, [the activities of] Iran and their proxies in Brazil, have not changed, and as a matter of fact [they are] probably [magnifying].
Argentina is a different case. Argentina has that history with AMIA. Argentina has a huge history with Iran, and in many ways, Iran is a very delicate topic over there, but recently they just ratified an agreement to create a truth commission in both countries that will be able to re-investigate the case on AMIA, but behind those truth agreements is a lot of trade. I mean before they even talked on the diplomatic level, they have been talking trade for quite a while. Argentina needs more and more investors, and they need people to come in and buy some of their agricultural products. With an economy that is going down the slumps, the more they get credible investors is going to be much more difficult, so they start to get other investors that are maybe not as credible.
But aside from the interest level, I want to focus a little bit on the ideological because the partnership or the alliance or the relationship is not just done on pragmatic, foreign policy grounds; we give this, you give that, or we establish relationships through formal investments. There is also an ideological component to this. This book – actually, I did not bring my copy. I have a copy of this book, and it is interesting because this book was written by a Spanish ideologue named Jorge Verstrynge, La guerra periférica y el islam revolucionario. Translated it is Peripheral Warfare in Revolutionary Islam, so this is an Islamic, revolutionary, asymmetric warfare book based on the Islamic jihad, written by a Spanish politician and ideologue who actually had a weird background.
I will not go too much into him though. He was invited to Venezuela in 2004. 2004 is kind of the time when Hugo Chávez had kind of a paradigm shift in his foreign policy. That is when he created ALBA. That is when he started moving and doing a regional approach and started to work with other governments in the region. And he also changed his military strategy. He had this conference called The First Military Forum on Asymmetric War, and he brought Jorge Verstrynge as his keynote speaker to talk to him. [He said] I love your book, you make a lot of sense, we want to learn how to apply this.
And they did apply it in a sense, and this is where I wish I brought it with me, but I have a copy. This is a book, full size like that book, and this is a pocket size edition that Hugo Chávez converted from military officers to carry in their uniforms as basically their military doctrine. It is not directly translated, there is some stuff that they added, but it essentially became military doctrine in Venezuela. They converted it, decorated it with the Coat of Arms and everything, and they have used that as kind of their doctrine to understand how to do insurgency and revolutionary tactics, and they initially passed out 300 copies to the field grade military officers in the Bolivarian Republic.
I was meeting with some folks in Colombia. I mentioned this topic, and this Colombian intel guy said we know, we have seen that book. I said where did you see it? He said we have seen it with the FARC, so it has actually been circulated a lot wider than Venezuela at this point.
Now, there are three areas. When I say beneath the surface on the asymmetric level, there are three areas that I want to cover. First is the money laundering because obviously with the sanctions, Iran has to find ways to get access to financial systems, and they also need places to actually finance their projects. The second will be terrorism. I think everybody in this room knows plenty about Iran’s work with supporting and propagating terrorist networks. And the last, which I will not get into too much for lack of time and other reasons, is their military footprint that they are trying to create. I would say military-industrial footprint that they are trying to create in the region, but let us start with money laundering.
Everyone knows Iran is heavily sanctioned. They have very limited partners and access to legitimate financial systems in the international systems, so they have to create schemes to find ways to get through. This is a very simple scheme. Many of you guys probably know more about money laundering than I do, but I guess someone told me it is called a nesting scheme since you nest your money in accounts abroad that have corresponding accounts with U.S. or other legitimate partners. It is a way that, say a U.S. bank, Wells Fargo, wants to do transactions with Venezuela. They would rely on a local bank, their corresponding account in that local bank, to do all the due diligence in order to be able to do initial wire transfers. That Venezuelan bank is then operating with Iran, and obviously that is a way to launder money.
That sounds very simple, but they have to cover their tracks, so what you have here is you have the Iranian government. They set up front companies, banks or whatnot, they set up subsidiaries in Latin America that do business with Latin American governments and corporations that can inject the money into the system. The best example of this is the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo in Venezuela. This is a bank that if you go to Venezuela, Caracas, it looks like a regular commercial bank. They have check cashing services, credit facilities, and [all that], but if you go to statutory documents, the founding documents, you find that it is wholly owned by Bank Sadârat in Iran (Export Development Bank of Iran).