By Emanuele Ottolenghi in The Hill:
Cuba, Iran's island in the sun
The Obama administration thinks Iran's influence in Latin America is waning. That means it does not view the 80 or so cultural centers Iran has established across Central and South America as a threat.
Tehran begs to differ. It views these centers as a vehicle for the spread of its revolutionary ideology to America's backyard. Iran's official state visits, diplomatic agreements, commercial relations and volume of trade with the region do not come out to much. Far more important to the ayatollahs are the thousands of Latin American converts who, thanks to the centers' missionary work, flock to the regime-run Al Mostafa International University in Qom each year for indoctrination.
Cuba is the most recent and unlikely addition to Iran's growing network of missionary centers. In the last three years, Iran has established a Shiite cultural center and a mosque in Havana that is actively recruiting and converting Cubans. Many of its converts have already traveled to Iran, including one who is training as the first Cuban-born Shiite cleric.
Iran wants to preserve and expand this operation, especially now that Havana has relations with the United States.
So far, Iran has only won over a handful of people: Havana's Shiite community amounts to no more than 70 members so far. But far more important than the numbers is the fact that the community exists at all: Communist Cuba is not exactly a haven for religious freedom and proselytism is forbidden.
Regardless, Iran says that the Shiite center on the island was established with the full knowledge and blessings of Cuban authorities. Given that there was no Shiite community on the island before Iran began proselytizing, Iran could not have made inroads with the communist regime in Havana under the pretext of serving local Muslims.
Iran came in to proselytize and the Castro government let them in.
The importance Iran attaches to Cuba explains Iran's high-profile visits there in recent months — its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, travelled there in August, and President Hassan Rouhani in September.
Moreover, the man in charge of guiding the island's small Shiite community is the Argentinian-born Shiite Edgardo Ruben (aka Soheil) Assad. According to Joseph Humire, an expert of Iran's Latin America activities, Assad is reportedly Iran's "informal ambassador" to the whole Latin American region.
At a February 2015 congressional hearing, Humire described Assad as Iran's "primary agent of influence in Latin America" and as a "disciple" of Mohsen Rabbani, the Iranian Shiite cleric implicated in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Rabbani, who at the time served as cultural attache at the local Iranian embassy, originally moved to Argentina in 1983 to serve as a cleric to Argentina's Shiite community. He began Iran's proselytizing mission to Latin America while in Buenos Aires, recruiting individuals who today are deeply involved with Iran's missionary spread in the region.
Today, Rabbani is no longer able to travel due to the Interpol red notice against him for his involvement in the 1994 terror attack. But he still pulls strings from Qom, where he serves as personal representative of Iran's supreme leader to Latin America and teacher at Al Mostafa. Assad also does his bidding. When not in Latin America on his missionary trips, Assad trains Latin American students at Al Mostafa — likely under Rabbani's guidance.
The younger and the older clerics share the view that Latin America is fertile ground for the penetration of Iran's revolutionary message. And the regime gives them full political cover and financial resources to pursue this mission.
Iran is openly bragging about its missionary work in Cuba. In February 2014, Iran's Spanish-language Latin American network, Hispan TV, produced a short clip about a group of local converts visiting Iran under the auspices of a cultural institute run by Rabbani for the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. One of them was a Cuban.
In May of this year, Iran's state TV aired a documentary on Assad's life and missionary work. The 45-minute documentary revealed the existence of a Shiite center based in Havana and showed Assad in Havana and with his Cuban students in Qom.
Hispan TV is also broadcasting a documentary series featuring Assad and his work in Latin America. Two chapters are devoted to Cuba.
And in August, state TV again featured Assad in a 40-minute interview, which included a lengthy discussion of the challenges of spreading Islam in Cuba.
Cuban converts interviewed by Hispan TV are circumspect about the center's goals. They tread dangerous ground, having to reckon with Cuban intelligence while also doing Tehran's bidding. Assad addressed this challenge when he acknowledged the recent decision by Cuban authorities to deny him entry, when his most recent trip coincided with President Obama's brief visit to Cuba in March.
Assad and his TV host subsequently said that the denial may have come at Washington's request, and with Havana's approval. But that is unlikely: Iranian-backed Islamic centers flourish across the region, no obstacles from local authorities and barely a word of concern from the Department of State.
That's a mistake. Iran's converts are as radical in their version of Islam and their hatred for the West as those radicalized by Sunni extremists like al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Tehran sees them as the vanguard of its Islamic revolution in America's own backyard.
Washington, for once, should take Iran at its words.
Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.