A peculiar trait of cruel regimes down the centuries has long been their obsession with image. The most brutal, authoritarian and unaccountable of states pay a level of attention that borderlines on the obsessional to not merely how they are viewed not by their own citizenry, but also by other states and powerful actors on the international stage.
Nowhere is this truer than in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where untold amounts of public cash are funnelled every year into pro-regime, external-facing institutions that aim to bolster the regime’s fraught image overseas and advance the ideological principles it claims as a source of legitimacy.
These pro-Iran outfits extend not merely to media outlets such as Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the ubiquitous PressTV, but to online disinformation networks, cultural institutions and Iran-sponsored local organizations that – wittingly or unwittingly – have become a proxy for the Islamic Republic in their communities.
IranWire’s new series of articles aims to lift the lid on how pro-Islamic Republic propaganda manifests in different countries around the world. In partnership with local journalists, we’ll shed light on local support bases for the Iranian regime, how their narratives are spread and gain currency, and the sometimes devastating impact this has had on local democracies.
Our first article, by the Argentine-born journalist Florencia Montaruli, discusses how Iran's most infamous ally, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic have curried favour in Argentina and Latin America’s notorious Tri-Border Area.
Media organizations in Argentina affiliated to the militant group Hezbollah are working to export the principles of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, establishing local support bases in the country and undermining local governments. Recent shocking revelations by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) showed that Iran has invested significantly in local proxies who receive financial, political and propaganda assistance, backed up by a constellation of Spanish-language media outlets aiming to infiltrate Argentinian and Latin American audiences.
The History of Hezbollah´s Presence in Argentina
In the early 1990s, two cataclysmic terrorist incidents rocked Argentina that would stain the country’s relations with Iran and its overseas proxy, Hezbollah, for decades to come. The first was a suicide bomb attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, on March 17, 1992, which left 28 dead and 300 injured, including four diplomatic personnel.
Two years later, another explosion occurred on July 18, 1994, this time at the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, a Jewish community centre), killing 85 people and wounding more than 300 others. This van bombing is still considered the worst terrorist attack in the history of Argentina by its government, and arguably one of the most serious assaults on the Jewish community since World War II.
Immediately after each of these attacks were carried out, groups linked to Hezbollah claimed responsibility. The armed wing of the Lebanese Islamic Jihad Organization – now known to have been a nom de guerre for Hezbollah – was ultimately found responsible for the Israeli Embassy bombing by the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice. In the aftermath of the AMIA bombing, a group known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God, thought to be another Hezbollah front) issued a statement reiterating “the need to combat Zionism anywhere in the world”.
The CIA and Israeli Mossad later claimed that the types of explosives used in both attacks indicated a pro-Iranian terror group such as Hezbollah was the likely responsible party. Moreover, the direct cause of both attacks, according to the Argentine judge, had been Argentina’s cancellation of its co-operative relationship with Iran in the fields of nuclear science and nuclear investigation. From 1996, therefore, the AMIA bombing investigation pointed to joint Iranian and Hezbollah responsibility, leading that year to the overseas arrest of four Iranians who had worked at the Iranian Embassy in Argentina. In the years that followed, eight Iranians linked to the embassy admitted that the former Iranian cultural attaché, Mohsen Rabbani, had been one of the AMIA bombing´s lead architects.
Latin America’s long history of socialist, left-wing governments has made it the ideal setting for the propagation of Iranian-Hezbollah revolutionary doctrine, as well as a secure base of operations from which to spread terror. Worse still, some governments have made moves allowing Hezbollah to flourish.
More than two decades after the Israeli Embassy and AIMA bombings, the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman denounced an illegal agreement between Argentinian and Iranian authorities that, he said, had aimed to push down the “red notices” issued to the eight Iranians accused of the AMIA attack. Nisman described a “deliberate decision to cover up the accused Iranians… made by the President of Argentina, Cristina Elizabeth Fernández de Kirchner, and implemented by the Foreign Affairs minister of the Nation, Héctor Timerman”.
Nisman went on to trace the network of Mohsen Rabbani, who had served as the Iranian cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in the 1980s and led Iran´s proxy cells in Latin America. Following the bombing he was also identified by Brazilian and Argentine intelligence services as the coordinator of a youth recruitment network throughout Latin America, claiming to promote “Islamic studies in Iran”.
In a 500-page indictment, Nisman laid out the manner in which fundamentalist terrorism, sponsored and financed by Iran, had been able to operate and hide in plain sight in Latin America. He was able to corroborate with fresh evidence not only the higher degree of responsibility Mohsen Rabbani had had in the AIMA attack, but also his role as a coordinator of Iran-sponsored infiltration of Argentina. “Mohsen Rabbani, from Iran,” he wrote, “continues to decide and operate for the regime of Tehran, sending funding to support the structures he built in Argentina during the decade that preceded the AMIA attack and that he keeps hold of today, with assistance of his disciples.”
Alberto Nisman was found dead at his home in Buenos Aires on 18 January 2015, a few days after presenting the indictment in a television interview and just one day before he was scheduled to report on his findings in Congress. The then-government of Cristina Kirchner claimed in the first instance that the prosecutor had committed suicide, launching a smear campaign against him in the media. In page 208 of his indictment, Nisman had explained that Kirchner had asked Rabbani through intermediaries to “create an announcement for the media that says Argentina and Iran are working together in the assessment of a ‘truth commission’”. The announcement had been a smokescreen to deceive the Argentine people.
Nisman´s investigation is the most significant means by which the presence of Hezbollah in Argentina and Latin America has been drawn out of the darkness. It was after his death that other interventions and journalistic enquiries began. In March 2015, for example, two months after Nisman´s death, the award-winning Brazilian investigative journalist Leonardo Coutinho exposed the presence of Islamic extremist groups in Brazil and Argentina. “While Brazil has never experienced a terrorist act carried out by Islamic extremists on its territory,” he wrote, “it served as a planning hub for the Israel Embassy and AMIA attacks in Argentina”.
In July 2019 and under a different government, Argentina finally joined the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The Argentine Financial Information Unit froze the Shia militant group’s assets in the country and declared: "At present, Hezbollah continues to represent a current threat to security and the integrity of the economic and financial order of the Argentine Republic.” The move was met with scattered but rabid resistance from a cluster of Hezbollah-linked entities in the country: many of them centred in an anarchic zone on the border with Brazil and Paraguay, known as the Tri-Border area.
Hezbollah in the Tri-Border area
The Tri-Border area has a radius of 20km and an area of 200 sq km. It encompasses three cities, one from each of the bordering countries: Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, Foz do Iguacu in Brazil, and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. The relative lack of state control, permeable borders and prevalence organized crime have made it an ideal base for Hezbollah in the region and in 2001, intelligence sources first identified Lebanese residents in the Tri-Border area who were working for Hezbollah. The area is in fact a major source of funding for Hezbollah’s terrorism activities, such as radicalizing diaspora communities, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping and narcotrafficking.
Matthew Levitt, a senior researcher at US think-tank The Washington Institute, wrote in 2016 that both Iran and Hezbollah remained “hyperactive” in Latin America. “Since at least the early 1980s,” he added, “Iran has operated an intelligence network in South America... both [Iran and Hezbollah] continue to develop intelligence and logistical support networks in the region without restraint”.
According to Levitt, Hezbollah’s operations in the Tri-Border area alone are thought to generate $10-$12 million for the militant group annually. “A region routinely called the ‘United Nations of crime’ and a counterfeiting capital, the Tri-Border area is a natural home for operatives seeking to build a financial and logistical Hezbollah support network with existing Shia and Lebanese diaspora communities”.
Remarkably in the Tri-Border area, some 90 percent of the population is of Lebanese origin. This is the result of several waves of migration that began in the late 19th century and were renewed by internal instability over the next 100 years. Many Syrian Lebanese found in the Tri-Border area an opportunity to begin anew and grow their businesses. But their presence, too, means Hezbollah has chosen to concentrate its activities in this part of the continent.
In the Tri-Border area and across Latin America, Hezbollah´s propaganda takes on a distinctive revolutionary flavour. It ties in with the aims of Latin-American leftist groups, in both its “fight for national liberation” slogan – first wielded during its years of fighting against Israel – and its insistence on “war” against the United States, which has appealed to the Latin-American left of recent years. Hezbollah’s aims also appeal to proponents of Latin America’s Bolivarian Revolution: the socialist upheaval in Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez, founder of the Socialist Party of Venezuela, which sought to build an inter-American coalition to implement nationalism and a state-led economy.
Both Hugo Chavez and the Socialist Party of Venezuela had also been extremely close to Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the former Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner. Maduro allowed Hezbollah to take refuge in his country and in exchange Hezbollah negotiated petrol for Venezuela, which remains immersed in its worst economic crisis to date. Hezbollah found in Venezuela a base for the development of its Latin American operation: one it is now seeking to export to Argentina. The “Argentinian Hezbollah” emerging today appeals in its propaganda to a mixture of progressivism, the Bolivarian Revolution, anti-Americanism, and reaffirmation of the need for armed conflict.
Iran’s Argentine Propaganda Project Exposed by Middle East Media Research Institute
In July 2020, non-profit monitoring organization the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published a report on its website revealing evidence of how the Iranian regime and Hezbollah have developed a planned network of media and social media outlets to reach Latin American audiences, with a particular focus on Argentina.
The study focused on an outfit known as the Organization for The Liberation of Argentina (OLA), a political campaign group spearheaded in Argentina by Argentine-born Shiites. Established in 2012, the group expresses broad support for the regime in the Islamic Republic and seeks to export its original revolutionary principles to Argentina. The organization is based in the northern Argentine province of Jujuy and to retain its support base, not unlike Hezbollah, OLA offers social assistance to families in need. In return, those people are expected to participate in OLA´s political activities.
“Since its establishment in 2012,” MEMRI researchers wrote, “OLA has openly supported Iran's proxy organization, Hizbullah, and continues to do so despite Argentina's official designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization in July 2019 – a decision which OLA criticizes. OLA also supports the Iranian Islamic Revolution and its leaders and fully incorporates its principles, motives and terminology into the OLA political platform.”
OLA and its leaders post and promote speeches and images of Iranian officials on their social media accounts. OLA also organizes conferences and broadcasts a bi-weekly radio program from his own “radio school” in Jujuy, working closely with the news website infobaires24.com.ar, which itself has an agenda focused on anti-Americanism, armed conflict and leftist principles. Most of OLA’s conferences are related to the broad aims of Iran and the Shia “Axis of Resistance” and they often deploy symbols favoured by radical groups such as guns or swords. In some of his public appearances, OLA´s leader Ali Eric Peralta has even been photographed wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.
Ali Eric Peralta also presides over the Argentinian Academy for Strategic Thinking, which appears to be an additional platform for spreading OLA´s ideology. Peralta sees a clear connection between what he views as Argentina´s necessary struggle to be independent of American ‘hegemony’ and the struggle of the Iranian Revolution. In a 2015 Facebook post he described Hezbollah and Iran as having a “fundamental” role in maintaining “the balance of forces” in the MENA region, adding: “The western world project of global apartheid promoted by the Zionist-American axis is a reality in front of our noses… the vindication of Hezbollah and its influence on the regional scene… is not subject to idealizations of any kind, but to the objective limits that arrogant powers find for their plans.”
More concerningly, in a Facebook post dated May 17, 2020, Ali Eric Peralta invited his followers to listen to a radio show run by Mohsen Ali: a disciple of Mohsen Rabbani, an outspoken proponent of Hezbollah and additionally, the current director of the House of Dissemination of Islam in Buenos Aires, an organization dedicated to promoting “Islamic culture” in Argentina.
OLA organization also frequently quotes Iranian regime officials on issues of global relevance. Recently on January 30, 2020, OLA shared a poster of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who was quoted as saying: "Don't say that the destruction of the Zionist regime is impossible; nothing is impossible in this world." Pictured behind Khamenei were the late commander of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, Ghassem Soleimani, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.
Media Outfits Across Argentina Promoting Hezbollah
OLA and Mohsen Ali are far from the only outfits promoting Hezbollah’s principles in Argentina. Another very good friend of Mohsen Rabbani is Luis D’Elia, an Argentinian activist and ex-politician, who funded a movement broadly described as a violent wing of the Confederation of Argentine Workers. D’Elia was also on friendly terms with ex-Iranian premier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has been described as “the unofficial spokesman of the Iranian government in Argentina” by the centre-right news website Infobae.
In an interview with the historian Eduardo Vior on his radio station, Cooperativa AM770, D’Elia called Iran the “conqueror that resurfaces and gets Israel and the United States nervous”. A journalist at the same station also used an opinion piece to reject the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist outfit, saying the Argentinian government’s order “contributes nothing”.
In 2017, as a direct consequence of Nisman´s investigation, Luis D’Elia was arrested and prosecuted for his part in covering up Iranian participation in AMIA attack. Some 40,000 wiretapped phone calls proved that D’Elia had acted as an intermediary between the former president, Cristina Kirchner, and the Iranian regime in the negotiations over Iran’s impunity in the AMIA court case. In 2018, the activist D’Elia was released and will face trial in freedom under the argument that there is no danger of escape.
Plenty of other Argentine media outlets have worked to both promote the terrorist doctrine of Hezbollah and discredit those journalists and politicians who denounce Hezbollah’s presence in the country. Among them is the Paco Urondo Agency, which defines its mission as “militant journalism” promoting a “fight in the name of liberty” and defending the anti-American principles of Latin American left-wing parties. The Paco Urondo Agency was created in 2005 to promote the first government of Nestor Kirchner and is named after Paco Urondo, a guerrilla left-wing leader who murdered during the 1976 Argentine dictatorship. The agency has almost 130,000 followers on Facebook alone.
The website supports Hezbollah and describes the militant group as a democratic party. In one article, the Lebanese journalist Tamara Lari criticized the designation of Hezbollah and stated bluntly: “Hezbollah is a party with three ministers and rules in Lebanon.” The agency also takes a dim view of Israel and has published content denying Iran’s participation in the AMIA bombing. Notably, its website has a special section dedicated to promoting links between Argentina and Iran.
Close to Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Tri-Border area, in the city of Rosario in the province of Santa Fe, a worker’s cooperative-owned news website called Redacción Rosario operates along with a sister radio show called Pirate News and a weekly newspaper, El Eslabon, which has 15,000 followers on Facebook. The website has repeatedly promoted Hezbollah’s activities and has featured several articles written by bloggers who align themselves with Hezbollah.
Several much bigger outlets that form part of Argentina’s top-tier, mainstream media have also lent tacit support to some of Hezbollah and Iran’s pronouncements. Among them is the newspaper Tiempo Argentino, which is owned by Sergio Szpolki, a businessman close to the former president Cristina Kirchner, and has a readership of 45,000 a week. Alberto López Girondo, a journalist at Tiempo Argentino, has written several articles claiming that despite all the evidence to the contrary Hezbollah is not a terrorist group. “Having an armed wing does not mean committing terrorist acts”, he has said on several occasions.
Elsewhere the news channel C5N and the news website Minuto Uno, which have more than 12 million visitors each per month, were both bankrolled during the government of Cristina Kirchner by the same person: Cristobal Lopez, another businessman very close to Kirchner who has been in jail on corruption charges. These outlets, too, take a soft stance towards Hezbollah, as exemplified in their treatment of the detention of two Hezbollah followers in 2018. “Parents of the alleged Hezbollah followers speak: ‘We are not terrorists, we are Muslims’”, ran the Minuto Uno headline. By contrast, other outlets deferred to the wealth of evidence confirming the arrested brothers had clear links to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s Social Media Cheerleaders
A cursory inspection of Facebook reveals the presence of various Facebook pages spreading pro-Hezbollah material. Among them is a fan page called “Calma Pueblo”, whose creators could not be identified. Set up just last year, it now uses the platform to promote Hezbollah’s principles of armed conflict and exporting the Iranian Revolution to some 50,000 online followers.
In a Facebook post dated August 7, Calma Pueblo boomed: “Hezbollah is a resistance movement that defends the sovereignty of its country and confronts imperialism”. On May 28, 2020, it further opined: “What the leader of Hezbollah says can be applied in Latin America. Both, the Middle East, and our region has the same fight, against the same enemies”. As with OLA’s content, images and quotes from the leaders of the Islamic Republic – including Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution – and Hezbollah are widely shared.
Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic Infiltrate La Plata’s School of Journalism
Bearing in mind the kid-gloves treatment of Hezbollah in some quarters of Argentinian media, it is noteworthy that in recent years, a training institute for young reporters in the country has begun fostering new links with Iran. Florencia Saintout, who became Dean of the School of Journalism of La Plata University – one of the most important in Argentina – in 2010 used her position to usher in an array of controversial speakers allied with the Islamic Republic.
So strong were Saintout’s ties to Iran that they were briefly investigated by the Argentinian intelligence secretariat in 2011. In an interview in 2014, Saintout stated: “There are some problems between Iran and Argentina that have been created by foreign countries; we should engage in a series of cooperative and joint activities to remove these."
With the support of both Tehran University and the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires, Saintout organized a series of seminars at La Plata with Farhad Rahbar, president of the administration council of Iran’s Islamic Azad University, and the controversial Sheikh Abdala Madani, head of the Argentine Islamic Association: an organization made up largely of Shia converts that works closely with the Iranian Embassy. The university’s Institute of International Affairs has since created a seminar series on Islamic culture while Mohsen Baharvand, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, even sat on the jury for a La Plata student’s doctoral thesis. Prominent Hezbollah members have also been able to attend conferences at the university.
In a news article from October 2019, a group of journalists for the website Realpolitik accused Saintout of enabling the establishment of Hezbollah in La Plata. “Saintout’s links with the Iranian regime may be a real fear factor for the settlement of terrorist cells in La Plata”, they wrote.
What Needs to Happen?
The presence of Hezbollah in Latin America should be a wake-up call for the security services of all three countries in the Tri-Border area. It requires an organized and coordinated action to counter the threats as soon as possible: not only for the danger it represents in relation to narcotrafficking, kidnap and other illegal activities, but for its pervasive influence in both the Argentine media and in the local communities through “community groups” that take advantage of citizens’ need to indoctrinate them with radical principles. There is an urgent need for education and evidence of these terrorist groups’ macabre actions to be shared, to avoid a path from which Argentina and other Latin American countries might well have no return.