“The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, must love the tropics,” a Cuban diplomat commented ironically a few years ago. It was when the then Iranian ultra-Orthodox leader came to Latin America a lot to meet his friends from the “Bolivarian axis”. He said that he wanted to “counteract the tie with the United States.”
Between 2005 and 2013, Ahmadinejad traveled to the Americas nine times. He always has a stopover in Venezuela with sections to Bolivia (twice), Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. The Latin American presidents reciprocated the visits. Although there was a long Venezuelan-Iranian relationship from the founding of OPEC in the 1960s and an ideological relationship with Cuban Castroism since the 1980s, Chavism was the door that Iran took advantage of to enter a territory hitherto unknown to Persian Shiism. .
Nine years have passed since Ahmadinejad’s departure from power, but the Tehran government’s relationship with Cuba and Venezuela continues to be well oiled. The three countries share the sword that hangs over them from the trade sanctions imposed by the United States. They are united by fear of Washington’s “origin of evil” as well as convenient economic and ideological agreements. “Anti-imperialism” manages to amalgamate substances as dissimilar as Castroism, Chavism and Shiite Islam. The main ingredient in the glue is the populism that the three countries masterfully practice.
In the middle, crossed economic-political interests appear. The economies of the three countries are complementary, beyond the fact that the relationship is incomparable in terms of volume. Iran’s GDP is 1.4 trillion dollars and Cuba’s is barely 100 billion. Iran and Venezuela have oil, Cuba has medicine, an enormous knowledge of transportation infrastructure to circumvent trade sanctions, and sugar that is much needed in Tehran. Also transport exchanges and certain technologies. The rest are the common covers to finance their “clandestine” purchases in the market that they have closed through official channels, money laundering and financing through hybrid trade (licit/illicit).
Among this enormous network, there is also Hezbollah, the Lebanese military party created and financed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to influence the Middle East and which has a base of operations on the triple border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, as well as commercial operations and military in Venezuela.
With Cuba, Iran also has an important exchange of pharmaceutical production and biotechnology. The Sovereign-2 COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most recent bilateral cooperation efforts. Commonly known as Pasteurcovac in Iran, the vaccine was developed as part of a collaboration between the Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana and the Pasteur Institute in Iran. In June 2021, the Sovereign-2 vaccine received emergency use approval in Iran. A month later, Cuban state media announced that Iran would be the first country outside of Cuba to produce it on an industrial scale. In September, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke of the “unlimited” potential for expanding ties between Tehran and Havana.
Relations between Cuba and Iran began after the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the latter country adopted a theocratic-republican constitution and an anti-imperialist ideology centered on opposition to Western powers. The nascent Islamic Republic quickly joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and sought independence from the US and Soviet spheres of influence. Meanwhile, the late Cuban President Fidel Castro secured the president’s seat as de facto spokesman at the NAM conference that same year, cementing Cuba’s leadership in the organization.
The 90-member-state move was perceived by Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the obvious path to neutrality in the midst of the Cold War, while also providing Iran with diplomatic and economic partners it did not have in mind. West. For Cuba, it was having a powerful ally that backed it against the United States and its sanctions, which it had faced alone for two decades.
Cuban “neutrality” was always in question due to its absolute dependence on the Soviet Union. After the turbulent years of suffering for Cubans due to the fall of the regime in Moscow, the arrival of Vladimir Putin to power once again brought Russia and Cuba significantly closer. Iran also entered that alliance after Russia sided with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian war. They all fought and fight on the same side.
It is in this context that a strong alliance was also created between its intelligence services. All three countries maintain repressive regimes that rely on very strong espionage structures. Havana supported Tehran when successive repressions took place after electoral fraud. Tehran did the same thing after the July 11 protests last year. The spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, denounced US support for the San Isidro Movement and accused Washington of “trying to interfere in the country’s internal affairs.”
Although commercial exchange between the two countries officially appears meager, Cuba and Iran maintain strong defense and intelligence cooperation. The best-documented case dates back to 2003 when the Iranians operated from Cuban territory to disrupt US-based satellite transmissions to Iran. “The Cubans have a well-known and capable intelligence service on the ground that can provide access, information, and support to others that also have similar interests like Iran, Venezuela, and other nations hostile to the United States,” explains Professor Marzia Giambertoni of Brown. University, Providence
The Cuban Intelligence Directorate – known as G2 – was armed and trained by the Soviet KGB and the Stasi, the former East German Ministry of State Security, the strongest intelligence agencies in the socialist bloc during the Cold War. The survival of the Cuban regime for six decades can be attributed in large part to the ability of its intelligence services to control internal dissent, consolidate political dominance and keep external rivals at bay.
The G-2 recruits from promising and pro-Communist university students, especially from social science programs. It has also always acted internationally, first supporting Marxist insurgent groups in Latin America, and later accompanying Cuban military interventions in Africa and other Cold War conflicts. It also has several training camps where aspiring guerrillas have passed from the Palestinians to the Angolans and from the American Black Panthers to the Argentine Montoneros.
With the arrival of Hugo Chávez to the government in Caracas in 1992 and that of his successor Nicolás Maduro, the G-2 penetrated all levels of Venezuelan power. The Cuban military began to arrive at the Venezuelan bases. A new military doctrine, similar to that of Havana, was adopted. The ideological and military training began to be taught by Cuban instructors. In addition, with the help of Cuban agents, the Venezuelan intelligence community -including its civil and military branches- was remodeled and purged of officials considered “counterrevolutionary.” Even several Cuban specialists work in the government palace in tasks related to the protection of the regime and the analysis of the situation. They also created the FAES, the special action forces, the regime’s official shock groups to eliminate dissidents.
In Havana, the power in the shadows of the Cuban-Iranian relationship is led by the Argentine Edgardo Rubén “Soheil” Assad, an old acquaintance of the intelligence services of the entire continent, a “disciple” of Mohsen Rabbani, the Iranian cleric implicated in the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died. Expert on the subject Joseph Humire described him as “Iran’s informal chief ambassador to Latin America.” He was the “pastor” of the very small Cuban Shiite community, made up of about 80 people, until 2013 and since then he lives seasonally in the holy Shiite city of Qom with extended visits to the island. Together with Rabbani, he directs the Al Mostafa cultural institute where Latin Americans who want to become Islamic clerics of the branch of Shiism study. The Al Mostafa center has some 80 branches or cultural centers across the continent. In several reports presented to the US Congress in the last decade they have been described as an “Iranian intelligence operations and recruitment center in the region”.
Edgardo “Soheil” Assad is the son of Lebanese immigrants in Argentina who returned to his parents’ country when he was 20 years old. In the 1990s, Assad frequented the At Tauhid mosque in the Floresta neighborhood of the Argentine capital, whose spiritual leader was Rabbani. His family was then investigated for alleged links to Nidal Bazoun, a member of Hezbollah, who was in Buenos Aires when the AMIA attack took place.
Soheil Assad had a setback with Cuban intelligence when he wanted to enter the country a few days before the historic visit of US President Barack Obama in March 2016. Americans who follow his movements demanded that their Cuban counterparts deny him entry at that time. . “It was a little misunderstanding,” Assad said later when he returned to the island to reconnect with the community and friends of his in the highest Cuban echelons whom he visits at least twice a year.
It is in this network of Cuban Shiites led by the Argentine Soheil Assad that the Iranian special agents who travel permanently between Havana and Caracas move, where they then take some of the two weekly Mahan Air flights to Tehran. Mohammad Khosraviragh, the co-pilot of the Boeing plane of the Emtrasur airline held in Ezeiza and who, according to the president of Paraguay, Mario Abdo Benítez, would have undergone plastic surgery in Cuba to change the appearance of the woman, could have entered through there. face of him In the case led by Argentine judge Federico Villena, it was denounced last Monday that “the co-pilot’s real surname is ‘Khosrviragh'” and that he was allegedly a high-ranking member of Iran’s Quds Force who worked very closely with the murdered general. Qassem Soleimani and that he was in charge of “external special forces” such as those operating in Cuba and Venezuela.