Iran has established 80-plus “cultural centers” across Latin America and the Caribbean to promote Shiite Islam, counter U.S. influence in the region, and increase its own, according to the U.S. Southern Command’s 2015 posture statement submitted to Congress.
In the 2015 Posture Statement to Congress, Southcom Commander Gen. John Kelly, the author, expressed concerns about Iran’s presence in Latin America.
“Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population. The purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam, and increase Iran’s political influence in the region,” candidly said Gen. Kelly who mentioned that 2015 is likely his last year in command. “As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored.”
The General did not specifically say where in Latin America the 80 “cultural centers” are located.
There are nearly 40 countries in Latin American and the Caribbean, 33 of which reportedly fall under Southcom’s area of responsibility (AOR).
With 80 Iranian centers in the region, there could be at least one in every country that is part of Southcom’s AOR.
Gen. Kelly mentioned that, over the past 15 years, Iran has been seeking to foster closer ties with Latin American governments in an effort to increase its influence in the region and undermine U.S. sanctions, among other things, noting that those efforts have yielded mixed results.
“Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation,” Gen. Kelly told lawmakers. “Iran’s outreach is predicated on circumventing sanctions and countering U.S. influence.”
Gen. Kelly also expressed concern over operations conducted in the region by the Iran-backed narco-terror group Hezbollah, based out of Lebanon.
“The terrorist group Lebanese Hezbollah—which has long viewed the region as a potential attack venue against Israeli or other Western targets—has supporters and sympathizers in Lebanese diaspora communities in Latin America, some of whom are involved in lucrative illicit activities like money laundering and trafficking in counterfeit goods and drugs,” wrote the general. “These clan-based criminal networks exploit corruption and lax law enforcement in places like the Tri-Border Area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina and the Colon Free Trade Zone in Panama and generate revenue, an unknown amount of which is transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah.”
“Unfortunately, our limited intelligence capabilities make it difficult to fully assess the amount of terrorist financing generated in Latin America, or understand the scope of possible criminal-terrorist collaboration,” he added.
Breitbart News has reported that Hezbollah is believed to be operating across Latin America.
Gen. Kelly also warned that Sunni extremists, although a small a group in the region, are radicalizing Muslims and converts in the region. The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is a Sunni group.
Gen. Kelly warned that terrorist groups such as ISIS could use criminal smuggling organizations in Latin America to infiltrate the U.S.
He said that about 100 people from countries in the Caribbean and South America have joined ISIS.
The general also expressed concerned about the nexus between criminals and terrorists in the region.