Iran’s Soft-Power Offensive in Latin America, and How the U.S. Can Counter It

Feb. 28 2022

Based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, Al Mustafa University has branches and satellite campuses in more than 50 countries, where it disseminates Islamist propaganda and recruits for its militias. It has a significant presence in Latin America, bolstered by the sponsorship of a new chair in “sociocultural and geopolitical studies” at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Caracas. Emanuele Ottolenghi explains:

What began in the early 1980s as a subtle effort to propagate revolutionary Iran’s worldview through mosques and cultural centers is increasingly loud and visible, thanks to Iran’s transnational alliances with hard-left movements and regimes in Latin America, which help facilitate Al Mustafa’s proselytizing and propaganda work. Thanks to the zeal of its acolytes and Iran’s funding, a vast regional network is now in place. Revolutionary fellow travelers from Communist Cuba to the Castro-Chavista regimes in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have given Iran greater access, freedom of action, and resources to consolidate its outreach and leverage local anti-American sentiment to serve its own interests.

Al Mustafa-sponsored institutions are an echo chamber for Iran’s narrative of resistance to so-called imperialists and oppressors, usually embodied by the United States and Israel, which resonates more in parts of Latin America than a specifically Islamic message would, winning support from old-fashioned Communists and nativist, indigenous separatists. Among these groups, anti-Americanism is an easy sell.

Washington has done little to counteract Al Mustafa’s and Iran’s influence operations in Latin America, focusing instead on Iran’s hard power in the Middle East. Part of that is understandable: during the cold war, Washington sought to deter Moscow’s aggressive expansionism mostly through nuclear and conventional military deterrence. The establishment of Soviet cultural centers as proxies for the spread of propaganda in the West and the Third World is not remembered as an especially central element of the cold war, especially as their influence could never quite match the mass global appeal of American commercial culture. But they did play an important role, and Soviet revolutionary ideology did catch like wildfire over large parts of the globe, in part through the cultural and psychological appeal of its propaganda.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Iran, Latin America, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela

Saudi Arabia Should Open Its Doors to Israeli—and Palestinian—Pilgrims

On the evening of June 26 the annual period of the Hajj begins, during which Muslims from all over the world visit Mecca and perform prescribed religious rituals. Because of the de-jure state of war between Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state, Israeli Muslim pilgrims—who usually number about 6,000—must take a circuitous (and often costly) route via a third country. The same is true for Palestinians. Mark Dubowitz and Tzvi Kahn, writing in the Saudi paper Arab News, urge Riyadh to reconsider its policy:

[I]f the kingdom now withholds consent for direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia, it would be a setback for those normalization efforts, not merely a continuation of the status quo. It is hard to see what the Saudis would gain from that.

One way to support the arrangement would be to include Palestinians in the deal. Israel might also consider earmarking its southern Ramon Airport for the flights. After all, Ramon is significantly closer to the kingdom than Ben-Gurion Airport, making for cheaper routes. Its seclusion from Israeli population centers would also help Israeli efforts to monitor outgoing passengers and incoming flights for security purposes.

A pilot program that ran between August and October proved promising, with dozens of Palestinians from the West Bank traveling back and forth from Ramon to Cyprus and Turkey. This program proceeded over the objections of the Palestinian Authority, which fears being sidelined by such accommodations. Jordan, too, has reason to be concerned about the loss of Palestinian passenger dinars at Amman’s airports.

But Palestinians deserve easier travel. Since Israel is willing to be magnanimous in this regard, Saudi Arabia can certainly follow suit by allowing Ramon to be the springboard for direct Hajj flights for Palestinian and Israeli Muslims alike. And that would be a net positive for efforts to normalize ties between [Jerusalem] and Riyadh.

Read more at Arab News

More about: Israel-Arab relations, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Saudi Arabia