The Iranian cultural center in Santiago de Chile is hard to spot. Located inside a private home in a residential neighborhood, it bears no obvious sign to mark its presence. There is neither minaret nor dome. Much like Iranian influence operations in other parts of Latin America, it has a low profile. But that is about to change.
Last Sunday, Chileans elected Gabriel Boric, a young, former social justice student activist, as president. He is the most left-wing politician to run the country since Salvador Allende from 1970-73. As markets crashed and Chilean currency devalued, foreign observers worried about his economic vision. In fact, it is foreign policy they should watch. President Boric’s progressive domestic agenda will have to contend with his lack of a parliamentary majority. There will be no similar constraints on foreign policy, where his leftist instincts, backed by a strong anti-Israel domestic constituency, will likely put him in sync with Iranian influence operations in Latin America.
For Iran, Boric’s election represents an opportunity to raise its profile and protect its assets in this remote corner of Latin America, at a time when a rising tide of left-wing populism is again sweeping into power across the region.
Iran has two cultural centers in Chile. The one in the capital Santiago is run by a Hezbollah cleric from the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with family ties to sanctioned Hezbollah financiers and strong personal connections to Hezbollah’s West Africa fundraising and recruitment operations. Yet for years, he and his colleagues have been able to weave themselves into Chile’s public discourse, donning the mantle of religious scholars devoted to inter-religious dialogue and portraying Iran’s Shi’a (Shi’ite) brand of Islam as a moderate bulwark against Salafi extremism and a model of religious coexistence. The center has also organized annual al-Quds International Day marches in Santiago, exploiting the opportunity to forge alliances with local Palestinian activists. While preaching tolerance, its proxies have spread pro-Iranian and anti-Israel virulent propaganda.
Hezbollah’s illicit finance networks also operate in Chile, facilitating drug trafficking and money laundering operations. Despite a well-documented presence there for nearly two decades – including US Treasury sanctions against Chile-based, Hezbollah-run companies – the South American country has until now refrained from designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. There was hope this could change, after Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia did so, between July 2019 and January 2020. With Boric in power, this is now unlikely to happen.
Perhaps just as critical for Iran, is that Chile is the third country this year to elect a leftist president – after Peru and Honduras. Colombia and Brazil could soon be next. This rising red tide offers Iran a chance to bolster its influence operations by gaining the ear of those in power.
IRAN ALREADY has a foothold in each country in the region, thanks to cultural centers it has helped establish. It has cultivated local firebrand politicians and extreme Left or nativist movements. It has recruited activists, journalists and academics, by proselytizing, in targeted fashion, among public influencers. It has also given voice to indigenous claims – its center in Chile, for example, has published selected passages of the Koran in Mapuche, the local indigenous language – and to leftist causes through its media platforms, including Hispan TV, the Spanish language channel Iran launched in 2012 to spread its propaganda in the Western Hemisphere.
For Iran, Chile is no different, in this regard, from other countries in the region, except for one critical element. It is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in the world. This largely Christian community, whose origins date to immigration during Ottoman times, holds strident, radical positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – and Boric has embraced them. During his electoral campaign, he pledged to support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) legislation against Israeli businesses in the West Bank – a pledge which the Chilean-Palestinian community leadership has already requested he honor.
He has also publicly and gratuitously scolded the local Jewish community, waving the trope of dual loyalty against them. When local Jewish community leaders sent him honey as a gift for the Jewish New Year in 2019, he derided their commitment to a tolerant, inclusive society by publicly calling on them to disavow Israel and its policies to prove their bona fides.
Iranian proxies have lost no time celebrating Boric’s victory by reminding their followers of his Twitter trolling of the local Jewish community. Iran’s Islamic Center in Santiago has already congratulated Boric, calling on the new president to open his door to Iran’s emissaries.
Boric might just offer lip service to Palestinian and Iranian causes – after all, Chile’s trade with Iran is negligible and the Middle East is far away. But he can embrace their rhetoric with significant political consequences – given that he will now speak as president. Owning and championing Palestinians’ most radical demands is at the core of Iran’s revolutionary agenda and the Trojan horse it has often used to gain supporters across Latin America. Chile has always offered a propitious terrain, given its large Palestinian diaspora. And now, the rise to power of a millennial politician wedded to these same radical anti-Israel views offers Iran a great opportunity.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington focused on foreign policy and national security. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi