The assumption that Iran’s military threat is restricted to the Middle East no longer applies. The Islamic Republic’s militarily aggressive stance reaches deep into the Western Hemisphere.
Iran has actively been developing Latin America as a base from which to launch military and terrorist assaults on the United States. There is bipartisan concern in Congress that the White House has not responded to the threat, although the problem is recognized. Before departing to a visit to Colombia, Defense Secretary Panetta noted that “We always have a concern about, in particular, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and [their] efforts to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but also into this region…that relates to expanding terrorism.”
In recent testimony before Congress, Southern Command Commander USAF General Douglas Fraser stated “Iran is very engaged in Latin America…they are seeing an opportunity with some of the anti-U.S.-focused countries within the region…”
Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) HR 3783–the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012”– was reported out by Congress’s House Foreign Affairs Committee this Spring. The measure is an attempt to force the Obama Administration to respond to the very real danger now presented by the Islamic Republic’s aggressive and rapidly growing military and diplomatic threat in Latin America.
The bill has received bipartisan support. The lead Democrat on the committee, Brian Higgins (D-NY) noted that Tehran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah presents a danger not only in Latin America but throughout the Western Hemisphere, with an active presence in fourteen North American cities. Higgins is particularly concerned with the terrorist group’s presence in Toronto.
The legislation notes that Iran has:
- Used its terrorist Hezbollah proxy force in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, to gain influence and power;
- Built numerous “cultural centers” and overstaffed embassies to assist its covert goals; and
- Supported the activities of the terrorist group Hamas in South America.
The bill specifies that Iran is complicit in numerous dangerous unlawful activities in addition to military threats, including drug trafficking, counterfeiting, money laundering, forged travel documents, intellectual property pirating, and providing havens for criminals and other terrorists.
H.R. 3783 also notes that sophisticated narco-tunneling techniques used by Hezbollah in Lebanon have been discovered along the U.S.-Mexican border, and Mexican gang members with Iranian-related tattoos have been captured.
Evidence of Iran’s increasing boldness can be seen in last fall’s thwarted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir.
Other Representatives, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), have introduced bills seeking to deny Iran the ability to mount a threat to our southern border.
A Growing Military Threat
Reports from around the world have noted Tehran’s growing military presence in the Western Hemisphere. Germany’s Die Welt described the Islamic Republic’s construction of intermediate range missile launch pads on Venezuela’s Paraguana Peninsula.
Congress has been attempting to get the White House to focus on the problem for some time. Many members were distressed by the Administration’s cutting $13 million annually from its Southern Command military budget (which has responsibility for the region) and its refusal to beef up intelligence assets in the vicinity. Last July, Rep. Ros-Lehhtinen along with several colleagues submitted a letter to the State Department expressing concern on Iran’s hostile acts in South America.
The Islamic Republic’s efforts have been largely successful. In 2010, trade with Brazil increased by 0ver 80%, as noted by Steve Heydemann’s Iran Primer study. Trade with Venezuela has also increased substantially. Observers believe that, rather than representing actual economic activity, the commerce is a cover for more nefarious activities, as noted by The Foundry’s Peter Brookes. In return for economic favors, several South American nations, including Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador have been supportive of Tehran and its ally Syria in diplomatic forums.
The threat is not confined to low-level tactics. There is mounting concern that both nuclear and ballistic missile threats are emerging from Venezuelan-Iranian cooperation.
The Tehran/Caracas axis, encouraged by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, is particularly troubling. Brookes reports that the two nations have a Memorandum of Understanding “pledging full military support and cooperation that likely increases weapons sales.” One could easily see Tehran using Caracas as a stepping off point for attacking U.S. or other (e.g. Israeli) interests in this hemisphere or even the American homeland, especially if action is taken against Iran’s nuclear program.”
He goes on to note that “There is concern that Iran and Venezuela are already cooperating on some nuclear issues. There have been reports that Iran may be prospecting for uranium ore in Venezuela, which could aid both countries’ nuclear programs, should Caracas proceed… While still prospective, of course, there is the possibility that Tehran, which has an increasingly capable missile program, could sell or help Caracas develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching American shores.”
Iran’s interest in Latin America entails both its goals of threatening the United States and enhancing its nuclear capability. In his testimony before theU.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Ilan Bermanstressed Iran’s need for uranium ore.
“Iran’s indigenous uranium ore reserves are known to be limited and mostly of poor quality…Cooperation on strategic resources has emerged as a defining feature of the alliance between the Islamic Republic and the Chavez Regime. Iran is currently known to be mining in the Roraima Basin, adjacent to Venezuela’s border with Guyana. Significantly, that geologic area is believed to be analogous to Canada’s Athabasca Basin, the world’s largest deposit of uranium.”
He notes that Iran “boasts an increasingly robust paramilitary presence in the region. The Pentagon, in its 2010 report to Congress on Iran’s military power, noted that the Qods force, the elite paramilitary unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is now deeply involved in the Americas, stationing ‘operatives in foreign embassies, charities and religious/cultural institutions to foster relationships with people, often building on socio-economic ties with the well-established Shia Diaspora,’ and even carrying on ‘paramilitary operations to support extremists and destabilize unfriendly regimes.”
Skirting international sanctions is also a key interest for Tehran. Despite mounting evidence, however, Berman notes that Washington has “done little concrete to respond to it…a comprehensive strategy to contest and dilute Iranian influence in the Americas remains absent. Unless and until such a strategy does emerge, Iran’s efforts-and the threats posed by them to American interests and the U.S. homeland-will only continue to expand.”
But is Iran truly prepared to attack the United States from Latin America? The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, appears to believe so. In February, he testified before the Senate Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that “Iranian officials…are now more willing to conduct an attack on the United States.”
Roger F. Noriega, the former ambassador to the Organization of American States and former Assistant Secretary of State, notes that “Iranian officials have made no secret of the regime’s intention to carry its asymmetrical struggle to the streets of the United States and Europe.” As a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Noriega continues his review of Latin American issues. Through his ongoing research, he has concluded that:
“* Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are conspiring to wage an asymmetrical struggle against U.S. security and to abet Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Their clandestine activities pose a clear and present danger to regional peace and security.
* Iran has provided Venezuela conventional weapon systems capable of attacking the United States and our allies in the region.
* Iran has used $30 billion in economic ventures in Venezuela as means to launder money and evade international financial sanctions.
* Since 2005, Iran has found uranium in Venezuela, Ecuador and other
countries in the region and is conducting suspicious mining operations in some
* Two terrorist networks – one home-grown Venezuelan clan and another
cultivated by Mohsen Rabbani, a notorious agent of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – proselytize, fund-raise, recruit, and train operatives on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah in many countries in the Americas.
* Hezbollah conspires with drug-trafficking networks in South America as a
means of raising resources and sharing tactics.
* The Venezuelan state-owned airline, Conviasa, operates regular service from
Caracas to Damascus and Teheran – providing Iran, Hezbollah, and associated
narco-traffickers a surreptitious means to move personnel, weapons,
contraband and other materiel.”
It should be noted that the U.S. is not the only target of Iranian influence. Matthew Levitt, writing for Project Muse, notes that Argentina has twice suffered terrorist attacks executed by Iranian and Hezbollah agents. The Islamic Republic freely used diplomatic cover in these actions.
White House Inaction
Noriega is concerned that the White House is not adequately concerned about these developments, and in fact has “misinformed” Congress as to their seriousness. “Many months ago,” Noriega writes, “We provided U.S. officials the name and contact information of a reliable Venezuelan source with privileged information [about the existence of Conviasa flights between Venezuela and the terror states if Syria and Iran]…that source was never contacted…Congressional staff members tell us that executive branch officials continue to provide vague or misleading answers to direct questions on this relatively simple subject of whether those Conviasa flights continue…President Obama declared in December 2011, ‘We take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously, and we will continue to monitor them closely.’ Merely monitoring Iran’s foray into Latin America is the very least the United States must do to frustrate Tehran’s plans to threaten U.S. security and interests close to home.”
The President’s sanguine attitude is matched by Vice President Biden, who recently told reporters “I guarantee you Iran will not be able to pose a hemispheric threat to the United States.”
As this analysis went to print, the Wall Street Journal carried a report that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was providing assistance to Iranian ally Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in the form of diesel fuel to supply the Damascus regimes’ use of tanks and other heavy military equipment to violently suppress its own citizens. Once again, the White House’s response has been that it is “monitoring” the situation, but “doesn’t have the tools to stop it.”
The ongoing reluctance of the Obama Administration to address the large and growing threat from Iranian-South American military cooperation presents a clear and present danger to the U.S., one that will only to continue to grow more grave with each day of neglect.