The Mexican law student was surprised by how easy it was to get into Iran two years ago. By merely asking questions about Islam at a party, he managed to pique the interest of Iran's top diplomat in Mexico. Months later, he had a plane ticket and a scholarship to a mysterious school in Iran as a guest of the Islamic Republic.
Next came the start of classes and a second surprise: There were dozens of others just like him.
"There were 25 or 30 of us in my class, all from Latin America," recalled the student, who was just 19 when he arrived at the small institute that styled itself an Iranian madrassa for Hispanics. "I met Colombians, Venezuelans, multiple Argentines." Many were new Muslim converts, he said, and all were subject to an immersion course, in perfect Spanish, in what he described as "anti-Americanism and Islam."
The student, whose first name is Carlos but who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, left for home only three months later. But his brief Iranian adventure provides a window into an unusual outreach program by Iran, one that targets young adults from countries south of the U.S. border. In recent years, the program has brought hundreds of Latin Americans to Iran for intensive Spanish-language instruction in Iranian religion and culture, much of it supervised by a man who is wanted internationally on terrorism charges, according to U.S. officials and experts.
They describe the program as part of a larger effort by Iran to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere by building a network of supporters and allies in America's backyard. The initiative includes not only the recruitment of foreign students for special study inside Iran, but also direct outreach to Latin countries through the construction of mosques and cultural centers and, beginning last year, a new cable TV network that broadcasts Iranian programming in Spanish.
Regional experts say such "soft power" initiatives are mainly political, intended in particular to strengthen Tehran's foothold in countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador, which share similar anti-American views. But in some cases, Iranian officials have sought to enlist Latin Americans for espionage and even hacking operations targeting U.S. computer systems, according to U.S. and Latin American law-enforcement and intelligence officials.
A report issued in May by an Argentine prosecutor cited evidence of "local clandestine intelligence networks" organized by Iran in several South American countries. The document accused Tehran of using religious and cultural programs as cover to create a "capability to provide logistic, economic and operative support to terrorist attacks decided by the Islamic regime."
Singled out in the report is an Iranian cleric and government official, Mohsen Rabbani, who runs several programs in Iran for Latin American students, including the one attended by Carlos. A former cultural attache in Buenos Aires, Rabbani was accused by Argentina of aiding the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in that city that killed 85 people, the country's deadliest terrorist attack.
Iran rejected the allegations and has sought to dismiss the Argentine prosecutor as a "Zionist." Rabbani has denied any role in the bombing or any other terrorist operation.
But Rabbani has made no secret of his interest in drawing in young Latin Americans who admire Iran's fiery defiance of the West. A report for Congress by IBI Consultants, a Washington-based research company that advises U.S. government agencies on Latin American terrorism and drug-trafficking networks, estimated that more than 1,000 people from the region have undergone training, mostly under Rabbani's supervision, in Iran since 2007.
Only a handful of graduates have talked about their Iranian schooling publicly. One of those is Carlos, who was struck by the effectiveness of a program that isolated a small group of foreign students and subjected them to weeks of theological and political indoctrination. He recalled how some classmates who had seemed merely curious about Iran and its religion ended their study as committed disciples.
"Some of them," he said, "I'd call crazy-obsessed."
A friendly invitation
What exactly the Iranians saw in Carlos is not clear, even to him. When he encountered his first Iranian government official, at an embassy reception in 2010, he spoke no Farsi and knew little about the country or its religion beyond what he had seen on TV.
At the time of the diplomatic party, Carlos was enrolled as a first-year student in the law program of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Mustering his courage, he introduced himself to Mohammad Ghadiri, the Iranian ambassador, and blurted out that he was interested in learning about Islam. The diplomat was warm and polite, and the two followed up by telephone the next day.
"Why don't you stop by the embassy," Ghadiri asked, according to Carlos's account.
At the Iranian mission, Ghadiri mentioned a special course in Iran that had been set up for Latin American university students just like Carlos. If he was willing, the Iranians would pay for everything, the ambassador said. He could be enrolled in the next semester's classes, just a few months away.
Carlos thought briefly and agreed to go.
"I was scared, but they took care of everything," Carlos said of the start of his strange odyssey to a country he knew little about. His Iranian sponsor, he recalled, "just seemed like a nice guy who wanted to help me learn about his country."
The tall, solidly built Mexico City native, now 21, described his encounter during an interview in a West Coast city that is his temporary home while awaiting a decision on a U.S. asylum application. The Washington Post agreed not to reveal some particulars about his identity, including his full name, because of his fear that Iranian officials may attempt to retaliate for his account.
After the embassy meeting, things happened so quickly that Carlos barely had time to consider what he was doing, he later recalled. The youth was given plane tickets and a letter of acceptance for the Iranian school he would be attending, the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute, in the ancient city of Qom.
Of the institute's director he knew nothing, having never heard of Rabbani or his alleged ties to terrorism in Argentina and elsewhere. Later he would encounter the former cultural attache at the school and learn of his prominence from Iranian television programs and Web sites, where Rabbani is a tireless proponent of exporting Iran's Islamic revolution to the Spanish-speaking world.
In addition to the training centers he runs, Rabbani helped start Iran's largest Spanish-language Web site and was instrumental in launching HispanTV, a cable network that broadcasts Iranian programs and commentary in Spanish. Rabbani would boast in a 2011 interview of having shattered "the American myth" by helping drive Latin American opinion away from the West and toward Iran's vision of revolutionary Islam.
Target of suspicion
After landing at the airport in Tehran, Carlos was promptly met by a Spanish-speaking escort and a driver who took him to Qom, the center for Shiite theological study for half a millennium. There he found himself surrounded by Spanish-speaking students representing almost every country in the Western Hemisphere.
All of them lived, ate and studied together for three months on a rigorous schedule that rarely allowed them to socialize or mingle with students from a parallel school for European converts in a neighboring building, Carlos said. He described his fellow students as intense, serious and seemingly in the thrall of the school's religious teachers.
"All the classes were ostensibly religious, but the teachers would interject politics all the time," Carlos said. "If the subject was economics, the message was about how the United States was manipulating the economy for its own benefit."
According to Carlos's account, the institute's Iranian staff began to view the young Mexican with increasing suspicion. In March 2011, school officials seized cameras and tape recorders Carlos had brought from home and accused him of being a spy. Carlos left the school one evening and found his way to the Mexican Embassy in Tehran, where he sought his government's protection.
Eventually he was allowed to leave for Mexico, but Iranian officials, then and in the months that followed, hinted that they were not finished with Carlos. Later that year, Ghadiri, the former Iranian ambassador to Mexico, told a reporter in a Spanish-language news interview that his government had kept track of the young Mexican's whereabouts.
"I have information," Ghadiri told the journalist.
Iran's broad outreach
Although he witnessed the daily bombardment of anti-American messages, Carlos said he did not observe overt attempts to recruit students for anything other than learning. Iranian officials insist there weren't any.
Indeed, the officials are open about their ongoing efforts to attract promising young foreigners through programs such as the Oriental Thought Cultural Institute, and they are hardly alone in doing so. The State Department spends millions of dollars annually on officially sponsored U.S. travel for foreign students as well as budding journalists, politicians and civic leaders.
"Cultural and academic exchange is a normal practice among countries, and Iran as a country that enjoys a remarkable number of high-rating scientific and cultural institutions is not an exception," said Ali Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York. "Iran, like the U.S. and many other countries, admits every year hundreds of students from Africa, Asia and other regions."
But for some U.S. officials, the worry is that the increased recruitment is tied to a larger effort to woo not only individuals, but countries. Iran has more than doubled the number of embassies in Latin America since 2005 — from five to 11 — while building 17 cultural centers and numerous mosques throughout the region. Its HispanTV network beams daily into millions of Spanish-speaking households, with programming such as a dramatic series that brings an Islamic perspective to the Christian story of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
"Iran is ramping up its strategic messaging to the region," Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council, told a recent congressional hearing. The prevailing message is "one that promotes its own ideology and influence at the expense of the United States."
Not all those messages manage to penetrate. Some of Iran's overtures in the region have been firmly rejected by Latin American governments who see little benefit to cozying up to Tehran, a relatively weak economic power viewed by most Western countries as a pariah because of its sponsorship of terrorism and its controversial nuclear program.
The State Departmentacknowledged in a report last month that Iran has "increased its outreach" to Latin America in recent years, but also concluded that Iran's overall influence in the region is "waning." Whatever Tehran's intentions, U.S. diplomats and regional experts said, Iran's ruling clerics are losing sway because of a severely weakened economy and repeated foreign-policy stumbles such as promising aid that never arrives. Even viewership for HispanTV and its "Santa Maria" drama remains small, they said.
'I have nothing'
Carlos, who was unsettled by the Iranians' comments about watching him, became increasingly fearful after a series of incidents in which he says he and his friends were followed by men they recognized from the Iranian Embassy. On one occasion, strangers with Middle Eastern features asked for Carlos at his parents' home. After local authorities in Mexico dismissed his concerns, Carlos traveled to the United States in 2012 to file an application for asylum.
Carlos said he has little money and few prospects in the United States and has sometimes gone hungry, but he is too afraid to return home. Of his three months in Iran, little remains, he said, besides bad memories and an Iranian visa in his passport, stamped with arrival and departure dates for a journey that changed his life.
"I once had a bright future in Mexico, but here I have had to start all over again, and I have nothing," he said. "Since the day I got back, things have never been the same."