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.