The relative success of Hezbollah in Latin America is the result of a dangerous combination of political impunity and influence-for-hire. The leaders of some countries of the region afford the militant group both of these, while networks of expatriates and supporters act as accomplices in its illicit schemes.
Last week, IranWire detailed how Peru's president-elect had deeply worrying ties with Edwar Husain Quiroga Vargas, the spokesman for an Iranian military intelligence network in Apurímac, Peru, which is dedicated to recruiting locals under Hezbollah's command.
Who is behind this dangerous trend across Latin America? Who are the executors of the plan to "export the Islamic Revolution" started in the 1980s by Mohsen Rabbani? They count in the thousands. But one of note is an Argentine citizen: Edgardo Rubén Suhail Assad, also known as Sheik Suhail Assad, who began working with indigenous groups in the Apurimac region so as to pave the way for Quiroga Vargas to establish his intelligence outfit.
Who is Edgardo Ruben Suhail Assad?
Edgardo Rubén Suhail Assad is Argentine-born, the son of Lebanese immigrants. At the age of 20 he emigrated with his family to Lebanon, where he studied Persian and Islamic theology – and met one of the main proponents of pro-Iran expansionism in Latin America, Mohsen Rabbani. Rabbani lived in Argentina in the 1980s and is accused of being behind the bomb attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992, and the AMIA headquarters in 1994, which killed scores of people.
One of Rabbani's main disciples was Michael Seaforth, better known by his Muslim name Abdul Kadir: a Guyanese-born politician who was arrested in 2007 in Trinidad and Tobago after being identified as a key connection in a plot to blow up a fuel reservoir at JFK International Airport in New York. As one of Iran's first South American-based agents, before his arrest, Kadir had developed an intelligence structure throughout the Caribbean in line with Rabbani's plan.
When Kadir was arrested, Rabbani knew he needed another director of operations in South America to continue his expansion plan. That was how Edgardo Ruben Assad became Rabbani's biggest disciple.
Rabbani, Assad and the “Islamic Expansion Plan” in Latin America
Assad is currently based in the Iranian city of Qom and works as an “informal ambassador” for Iran in Latin America. He acts as a link between young people, women, and indigenous groups who have been attracted to the principles of the Islamic Revolution, and Iran itself.
He has also established more than 20 Islamic centres in Latin America and according to Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi, a researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has been invited as a guest to more than 80 Latin American universities. Indeed, in 2016, the Iranian state television immortalised Assad's "achievements" through the presentation of a 15-chapter documentary broadcast in Spanish by the Iranian regime’s channel in Latin America, HispanTV.
Assad’s Name on Alberto Nisman’s Complaint
Assad did not work alone. At least, not in his native Argentina, where he knew established a network of operatives that included his own family. According to the late Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a key figure among them was Abdul Karim Paz: his brother-in-law, and the religious leader of the Buenos Aires At-Tawhid Mosque, who was born Santiago Paz Bullrich.
Paz converted to Islam thanks to Mohsen Rabbani and is married to Roxana Elizabeth "Masuma" Assad, head of the Argentine Islamic Cultural Institute. He studied alongside Rabbani in Qom for five years before returning to Argentina in 1993 and becoming the mosque's imam. He also lived for some time in Chile, where he founded the Puerto Montt Chilean Islamic Cultural Centre.
According to Nisman, the efforts of Assad and Paz allowed this pro-Islamic Republic network to gain access to powerful groups in Argentina. Through Abdul Karim Paz, Assad maintained contact with Cristina Kirchner and the Argentine government through Assad's cousin Jorge Alejandro "Yussuf" Khalil. In 2017, Nisman accused Khalil of conspiring with Kirchner to advance the Iran Pact, which would see the Argentine authorities cover the Iranians accused in the AMIA bombing.
Alberto Nisman's complaint about this private family network made up of Assad, Paz and Yussuf Khalil, and its links with the government of Cristina Kirchner, costed the prosecutor his life. He was found dead in January 2017, days before presenting his complaint to the Argentine National Congress.
Travels to Mexico and El Salvador on Behalf of the Islamic Republic
In addition to Peru, Chile, and Argentina, Assad continued with the "export of the Islamic Revolution" to Latin America. He paid his first visit to Mexico in 2007 as a lecturer for a cultural foundation. Members of the Mexican Shiite community at the Mosque in Torreón, Coahuila then made a formal request to the Mexican government for Assad to receive the permanent residency as a “cultural and educational attache”.
But Assad never received Mexican residency, and in fact, the government barred him from entering Mexican territory two years later, in 2009. The reason? the Mexican intelligence services had placed him on the watch list for his links with those involved in the AMIA bombing.
According to Joseph Humire, co-author of the book The Strategic Penetration of Iran in Latin America, and director of the Centre for a Secure Free Society, Assad then visited El Salvador in 2013 on the invitation of the Islamic Cultural Centre of San Salvador to give a series of lectures at universities on the political situation in Iran. “During that visit,” Humire has explained in a written submission to the US government, “Assad contacted the Marxist guerrilla movement Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which has become a political party. Its leader, Salvador Sánchez Ceren, was elected president of El Salvador between 2014 and 2019.” Humire also confirms that the President of El Salvador, Sánchez Ceren, was a key figure in establishing relations between the Islamic regime and other Central American countries, today intricately linked to Hezbollah.
Assad's latest achievement in his mission in Latin America was to establish HispanTV, the Spanish arm of the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). HispanTV operates in 16 countries, often in conjunction with the Venezuelan state-owned broadcaster TeleSUR. Assad himself hosts a number of its TV shows.
Gone but Not Dormant
As far as experts have been able to verify, since Nisman's complaint and his subsequent murder, Edgardo Rubén Assad has stayed between Iran and Lebanon and still works closely with Mohsen Rabbani. He is responsible for overseeing recruitment efforts at Al-Mustafa University, the Organization for Islamic Development and the Islamic Propaganda Seminar in Qom. According to Radio Farda, in the year 2021, these three organisations received a stipend of $268m from Iran to spread pro-Islamic Republic and pro-Hezbollah propaganda.
In less than four decades, the Islamic Republic has established a permanent structure and support network in Latin America, the likes of which was never there before. The first generation of clergymen to arrive in Latin America from the Islamic Republic has since been replaced by highly trained local leaders there to serve the Iranian regime. The disciples of Rabbani, and later of Assad and Paz, are today critical parts of this expansion.