Monday, August 12, 2013

Unpacking the Washington Post Article on Iran’s ‘Recruitment’ in LatAm

On Saturday, the Washington Post published an in-depth exploration of an Iranian religious scholarship program in Latin America. While some details in the article are guaranteed to fuel fears of a growing Iranian threat in the region, there appear to be significant shortcomings in its factual basis.

The primary source for the article is a 21 year-old Mexican law student now living in the United States, identified only as “Carlos,” who reportedly signed up for a religious study program at Iran’s Oriental Thought Cultural Institute in 2011. Over the course of three months, Iranian authorities became increasingly suspicious of his intentions, and in March 2011 officials seized recording equipment from his room and accused him of espionage. He then returned to Mexico after contacting his embassy. The Post mentions a subsequent Spanish-language interview in which the former Iranian ambassador to Mexico, Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri, tells the interviewer that he “has information” on the individual’s whereabouts.

However, here the paper leaves out some important details. The only public interview with Ghadiri matching this description is this Univision interview, which is from May 2010. Unless there is another in which the Iranian official says the exact same thing, this means the Post got its dates wrong, and the incident actually occurred a year previously.

Secondly, the author leaves out the context of this remark. While Ghadiri did in fact accuse the Mexican student of working for the CIA, he claimed he was in the U.S. at the time. The full comment from which the quote is taken is: “I have information, in Mexican newspapers they have said he wants to be in the United States, no?” The difference is substantial, as it suggests the individual’s whereabouts were publicly known. What’s more, if the Post’s account of Carlos fleeing to the U.S. for asylum in 2012 is to be believed, then Ghadiri’s “information” was also completely off the mark.

On top of these inaccuracies, the Post article makes some disclosures which further undermine its own narrative. The author writes that, although Carlos claims his classes had a significantly anti-American bent, he acknowledges he didn’t “observe overt attempts to recruit students for anything other than learning.” The report also notes that the State Department spends millions of dollars each year on similar programs to allow “foreign students as well as budding journalists, politicians and civic leaders” to study and work in the U.S.

As such, while Carlos’ case may highlight paranoia in Iran towards U.S. intelligence operations, there is little evidence to suggest there is anything nefarious about this particular program. Ultimately, Iran’s menacing “recruitment” appears to be standard cultural diplomacy work, not unlike similar programs sponsored by American diplomatic officials.


News Briefs
  • On Friday, Peru’s Supreme Court weighed in on the recent release of tapes which appear to show government officials attempting to influence the outcome of a criminal trial related to the 1997 Chavin de Huantar hostage rescue operation, in which human rights groups say several Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) members were illegally executed. The court found that the individuals at the meeting were acting in accordance with the law, and called on officials to “identify, neutralize and sanction” those responsible for releasing the tapes, according to La Republica.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Colombia yesterday for his first visit to South America after assuming his position. Semana has an overview of his schedule, which includes meetings with President Juan Manuel Santos and Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, with whom he is expected to discuss security cooperation and bilateral trade.
  • This weekend brought good news for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, with the release of a Datafolha poll on Saturday which showed that the percentage who rated her government as "great/good" jumped six points since a previous poll released in June, and now stands at 36 percent.
  • On Saturday, El Espectador reported that Colombia’s government and FARC rebels have begun talks on the group’s participation in democratic politics. Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, cast the dialogues in an optimistic light, saying “We have naver gotten so far.” The BBC notes that the announcement comes after a tense week in which the guerrilla group expressed fears that leaders would be tracked down and killed by the government after an eventual agreement.
  • Using public records, Colombia’s La Silla Vacia has compiled a list of the 15 biggest private security contractors working in the country, which it refers to as the “super contractors.” The first 11 on the list are all foreign companies, based in the U.S., Korea, Canada, Germany, Russia and Israel. According to the news site, most of these companies have contracts related to air security, the state’s key advantage in its armed conflict with the guerrilla groups.
  • The Washington Post profiles outrage in the U.S. at a Mexican court’s Friday decision to release drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, who was convicted of the 1985 killing of a DEA agent. According to the Post, Caro’s defense attorneys are confident that a second accused figure will also be released soon.
  • In Sunday’s Post, the paper’s editorial board argues that United Nations officials “have a moral obligation” to acknowledge the responsibility that UN peacekeepers had in introducing Haiti’s devastating cholera epidemic, and should contribute greater resources to help bolster the country’s health system.
  • Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes has returned a proposed bill to Congress which would oblige media outlets in El Salvador to feature responses from individuals who feel they have been unjustly accused, or are the victims of character attacks. According to El Faro, Funes supports the law’s intent, but has requested that it be revised so that it guarantees the correction is at least as long as the original offending language.
  • On Sunday, Argentines voted in primary elections to choose candidates for the upcoming legislative election in October. La Nacion has a graphic laying out the geographic breakdown of the vote, in which candidates backed by President Cristina Fernandes de Kirchner won only 25 percent of the vote nationwide, losing a number of key provinces. The most high profile of these was in Buenos Aires province, which as El Cronista and Reuters report went to rising political star Sergio Massa.
  • As Uruguay’s Senate prepares to take up debate on a bill to regulate the country’s black market for marijuana, Brazilian drug czar Vitore Maximiano has raised mild concerns about the potential for cross-border spillover. In an interview with Veja magazine, Maximiano said he was not particularly worried by the initiative -- which he characterized as “bold” -- but also stated that his government wished to see “strong controls inside Uruguay, with production geared only for internal consumption.”
  • Meanwhile, the initiative has gained backing from other political leaders in the region. On Thursday, conservative Chilean presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei expressed support for Uruguay’s marijuana bill, telling local reporters: “The Uruguayan experiment is interesting, it should be discussed, although it is necessary to approach the matter in a serious and informed way.”