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 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 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 cable TV network that broadcasts
Iranian programming in Spanish.
Regional experts say such "soft power" initiatives are
mainly political, intended 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 hacking operations targeting U.S. computer systems, according to U.S. and
Latin American law enforcement and intelligence officials.
A report this year 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. Rabbani, a former cultural
attache in Buenos Aires, 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 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
What exactly the Iranians saw in Carlos is not clear, even to him.
At the time of the diplomatic party, Carlos was a first-year student in the law
program of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He introduced himself
to Mohammed Hassan Ghadiri, the Iranian ambassador at the time, 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' account.
At the Iranian mission, Ghadiri mentioned a special course in Iran
that had been set up for Latin American university students like Carlos. If he
was willing, the Iranians would pay for everything, the ambassador said. He
could be enrolled in the next semester's classes, just a few months away.
Carlos thought briefly and agreed to go.
"I was scared, but they took care of everything," Carlos
The Mexico City native, now 21, described his encounter during an
interview in a West Coast city that is his temporary home while awaiting a
decision on a U.S. asylum application. The Washington Post agreed not to reveal
some particulars about his identity, including his full name, because of his
fear that Iranian officials may attempt to retaliate.
The youth was given plane tickets and a letter of acceptance for
the Iranian school he would be attending, the Oriental Thought Cultural
Institute, in the ancient city of Qom.
He knew nothing of the institute's director, having never heard of
Rabbani or his alleged ties to terrorism in Argentina and elsewhere. Later, he
would encounter the former cultural attache at the school and learn of his
prominence on Iranian television programs and websites, where Rabbani is a
tireless proponent of exporting Iran's Islamic revolution to the
In addition to the training centers he runs, Rabbani helped start
Iran's largest Spanish-language website and was instrumental in launching
HispanTV, a cable network that broadcasts Iranian programs and commentary in
Spanish. Rabbani would boast in a 2011 interview of having shattered "the
American myth" by helping drive Latin American opinion away from the West
and toward Iran's vision of revolutionary Islam.
After landing at the airport in Tehran, Carlos was met by a
Spanish-speaking escort and a driver who took him to Qom, the center for Shiite
theological study for half a millennium. There, he found himself surrounded by
Spanish-speaking students representing almost every country in the Western
All of them lived, ate and studied together for three months.
Carlos described fellow students as intense, serious and seemingly in the
thrall of the school's religious teachers.
"All the classes were ostensibly religious, but the teachers
would interject politics all the time," he said. "If the subject was
economics, the message was about how the United States was manipulating the
economy for its own benefit."
According to Carlos' account, the institute's Iranian staff began
to view him with increasing suspicion. In March 2011, school officials seized
cameras and tape recorders Carlos had brought from home and accused him of
being a spy. Carlos left the school one evening and found his way to the
Mexican Embassy in Tehran, where he sought his government's protection.
Eventually he was allowed to leave for Mexico, but Iranian
officials, then and in the months that followed, hinted that they were not
finished with Carlos. Later that year, Ghadiri told a reporter in a
Spanish-language news interview that his government had kept track of the young
Although Carlos witnessed the daily bombardment of anti-American
messages, he said he did not observe overt attempts to recruit students for
anything other than learning. Iranian officials insist there weren't any.
Indeed, the officials are open about their ongoing efforts to
attract promising young foreigners through programs such as the Oriental
Thought Cultural Institute, and they are hardly alone in doing so. The State
Department spends millions of dollars annually on officially sponsored U.S.
travel for foreign students as well as budding journalists, politicians and
"Cultural and academic exchange is a normal practice among
countries, and Iran, as a country that enjoys a remarkable number of high-rating
scientific and cultural institutions, is not an exception," said Alireza
Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's diplomatic mission to the United Nations in
But for some U.S. officials, the worry is that the increased
recruitment is tied to a larger effort to woo not only individuals, but
countries. Iran has more than doubled the number of embassies in Latin America
since 2005 -- to 11 from five -- while building 17 cultural centers and
numerous mosques throughout the region. Its HispanTV network beams daily into
millions of Spanish-speaking households.
"Iran is ramping up its strategic messaging to the
region," Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American
Foreign Policy Council, said at a recent congressional hearing. The prevailing
message is "one that promotes its own ideology and influence at the
expense of the United States."
Not all those messages manage to penetrate. Some of Iran's
overtures in the region have been firmly rejected by Latin American governments
that see little benefit to cozying up to Tehran, a relatively weak economic
power viewed by most Western countries as a pariah because of its sponsorship
of terrorism and its controversial nuclear program.
The State Department acknowledged in a report in July that Iran
has "increased its outreach" to Latin America in recent years but
also concluded that Iran's overall influence in the region is