This1995 photo shows Moshen Rabbani, former cultural attache in the Iranian… (FILE/AP )
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.
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. The document accused Tehran of using religious and cultural programs as cover to create a “capability to provide logistic, economic and operative support to terrorist attacks decided by the Islamic regime.”
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 attache 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.
Iran rejected the allegations and has sought to dismiss the Argentine prosecutor as a “Zionist.” 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.
Only a handful of graduates have talked about their Iranian schooling publicly. One of those is Carlos, who 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.
“Some of them,” he said, “I’d call crazy-obsessed.”
A friendly invitation
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 was warm and polite, and the two followed up by telephone the next day.
“Why don’t you stop by the embassy,” Ghadiri asked, according to Carlos’s account.