Monthly Archives: July 2012

Iran’s Threat in Latin America

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…”
Pending Legislation
  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
uranium-rich areas.
* 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.”
Conclusion
   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.

America’s College Crisis

A new law provides a one year extension of low interest rates on federal college tuition loans–that is, until after the elections.  But will this encourage colleges to raise tuition even higher? Can the taxpayers afford this? Why has the cost of a college degree skyrocketed over the past several decades?  
                           The New Legislation

  With an eye on the upcoming November elections, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass legislation keeping interest on “Stafford” loans taken out as of July 1, 2012 at 3.4% interest for an additional year. The rate had been scheduled to double to 6.8%.

    The break comes with some fine print, however.  In a temporary provision lasting until July 1 of 2014, those taking these loans in 2012 and 2013 will not have an interest free period following graduation, although payment doesn’t have to begin for six months. Students enrolling in college without a high school diploma or a GED (except for those home schooled) enrolling in college for the first time are no longer eligible for federal student aid.
   The break doesn’t apply to new loans, or to all borrowers. The measure will affect about 7.4 million students, who will save an estimated $1,000 each, unless tuition goes up in reflection of this alleged temporary “break.” According to PRWeb, “From 2000-01 to 2010-11, the total amount of financial aid awarded to students under Title IV of the Higher Education Act jumped from $64 billion to an estimated $169 billion, a 10-year increase of 164%.”
   According to a Milliman Insight report, outstanding student loan debt in America is nearly a trillion dollars, which actually surpasses credit card debt.  The study notes that from 2003 through 2011, this loan debt jumped from $50 billion to over $900 billion. During this period, seriously delinquent loans have climbed from 6% in 2003 to over 9% in 2011.  The loans are not dischargeable, so bankruptcy is not an option for unemployed graduates who can’t pay back the loans due to a lack of jobs in our failing economy.
Excessive Tuition Costs
   The loans are vital to achieving a college education due to the continuous, excessive and unjustified increases in tuition rates. A Pew Research Centersurvey revealed that among adults aged 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, 48% say they can’t afford to go to college.
   A 2003 analysis by Congress’s House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness outlines the tuition challenge:
   “America’s higher education system is in crisis due to exploding college costs.  Tuition increases are outpacing the rate of inflation, increases in family income, and even increases in state and federal financial aid…These cost increases are pricing students and families out of the college market…tuition increases have persisted regardless of circumstances…and have far outpaced inflation year after year, regardless of whether the economy has been stumbling or thriving…institutions of higher learning have continued disproportionately increasing prices.” Students graduate with an average of over $25,000 in educational debt, according to US News.
   That conclusion is supported by the 2001 National Center for Education Statistics’s “Study of College Costs and Prices…” which concluded:
  “In both the public and private not-for-profit sectors, average tuition charges increased at a faster rate than inflation…” A Center for College Affordability and Productivity Report blames wasteful spending and administrative costs for the excessive tuition charges, stating  “It is not uncommon for schools to have more people working in an administrative capacity than serving as faculty members.”
   The increase in tuition rates has been staggering.  AP‘s Education specialistChristine Armario writes that “Between 1982 and 2007, tuition and  fees increased 439% while the median family income rose [only] 147%, according to…the National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education.  The price of in-state tuition at a public university has increased by more than 5% annually in the past 10 years.  It jumped 15% between 2008 and 2010 alone.”
Student Loans
   While politically popular, low interest federal student loans have their critics.  Economics professor Richard Vedder recently wrote of his concerns in Imprimis:
   “Federal student financial assistance programs are costly, inefficient, byzantine, and fail to serve their desired objectives.  In a word, they are dysfunctional, among the worst of many bad federal programs…if financial institutions can lend to college students on credit cards and make car loans to college students in large numbers–which they do–there is no reason why they can’t also make student educational loans.”
   Vedder stresses that unlike other loans, student loans are set by political, not market, forces.  He notes that a 3.4% rate is, considering inflation, actually close to zero.  He questions why the federal government should have a monopoly on this activity, and notes that on occasion the funds received are used for non-educational purposes.
   Vedder also points to the example of an era before the current loan program took effect:
   “In the 1950s and 1960s, before these programs were large, American higher education enjoyed a golden age.  Enrollments were rising, lower-income access was growing, and American leadership in higher education was well established…the system flourished without these programs.  Subsequently, massive growth in higher education has proved counterproductive.”
    After 1965, according to a CATO study, the federal government provided increasingly large amounts of funding for college education.  Between 1965 and 2007, “real federal spending…rose from $7.5 billion to an estimated $36.6 billion.”
   The impact on the federal budget of Washington’s monopoly on college financial aid is a cause of deep concern for many observers.
   “Because of highly irresponsible fiscal policies, the federal government borrows 30 or 40 percent of the money it currently spends, much of that from overseas.  Thus we are incurring long-term obligations to foreigners to largely finance loans…” notes Vedder.
Do Colleges Raise Tuition Based on Federal Aid to Students?
   There is significant evidence to maintain that federal loans themselves are at the least partially responsible for the extravagant increases in tuition.
   Former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, in his 1987 NY Timesarticle, “Our Greedy Colleges,” noted that “Increases in financial aid…have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise tuition, confident that federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase…higher education is not underfunded.  It is under-accountable and under-productive.”
   A recent Atlantic magazine article, reviewing Bennett’s concept twenty five years after it was written, notes that “twenty five years of swelling tuition prices later, Bennett’s critique seems to have received a bipartisan stamp of approval.”
  The 2006 study by Larry Singell and Joe Stone, published in Science Direct’s Economics of Education Review, notes that “Increases in Pell grants appear to be matched nearly one for one by increases in list (and net) tuition.”
   A Heritage Foundation report concurs, concluding “the major reason for tuition inflation over the years is government involvement in the first place…federal subsidies insulate colleges from being remotely worried about spending money wisely or cutting costs.”
   The February National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded that “institutions eligible to participate in federal student aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act charge tuition that is about 75% higher than that charged by comparable institutions whose students cannot apply for federal financial aid…the dollar value of the premium is about equal to the amount of financial aid received by students…lending credence to the Bennett hypothesis that aid-eligible institutions raise tuition to maximize aid.”
Conclusion

   There is a vicious cycle of excessive tuition based on the availability of taxpayer-supported loans, which in turn lead to further rate hikes.  This is draining funds from students, their families, and other sectors of the economy. If the already  over-indebted federal government is to responsibly continue the politically popular student loan program, colleges who seek to be eligible must be given stringent standards as to the tuition they may charge.

Turkish-American Relations

The recent clashes between Turkey and Syria highlight the pivotal role the Ankara government plays in the Middle East, NATO, and U.S. international relations as a whole. 
To The Brink of War
   Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish Air Force F-4 fighter in late June highlighted more than the depreciation in relations between two nations that share a 565 mile border.
    It brought back into focus the complex relationship between the United States and NATO’s only Islamic-majority member. Shortly after the incident, the Turkish government invoked NATO Charter Article 4, allowing member states to request consultation due to an armed threat.  The organization, meeting in Brussels, expressed concern, termed Syria’s action “unacceptable,” but planned no military response pending further developments. Ankara has sent a convoy of military vehicles to the Syrian border in response.
   Prospects for further NATO involvement remain in the realm of the possible, particularly since Russia continues to pump up to a half billion dollars of armaments to prop up the Syrian regime, which has engaged in human rights violations against its own citizenry on a massive scale.
   The relationship between Ankara and Damascus has been increasingly tense.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which seeks to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad, is operating from within Turkey. In addition to thousands of displaced Syrian civilians who have taken refuge in Turkey, various media reports indicate that a number of Syrian military personnel, including one general, may have entered Turkey to join the FSA. For its part, Damascus is suspected of allowing anti-Turkish Kurdish militants to operate from within Syria, as it did during the 1990’s. The two nations also came to the brink of war in 1957.
U.S. Turkish Relations
    Authors Angel Rabasa and F. Stephen Larrabbe note that “As a Muslim-majority country that is also a secular democratic state, a member of NATO, a candidate for membership in the European Union, a long-standing U.S. ally, and the host of Incirlik Air Base…Turkey is pivotal to U.S. and Western security interests in a critical area of the world.”
   America’s ability to pressure the Al-Assad regime would be severely limited without Turkey’s cooperation. Fortunately for the U.S., relations between America and Ankara have improved after a particularly rough period in recent years, though divisive issues continue to exist both in international relations and in the increasingly Islamist character of the Ankara government, which has begun to dismantle the highly nonsectarian character of the nation that was instituted by President Ataturk in 1928.
    Despite Ankara and Washington’s shared concerns over Syrian and Iranian repression, disagreements still remain. Turkey would not favor an Israeli strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities (the Obama Administration has also pressured Israel to hold back.)  Its position on regional issues such as disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia and Georgia, diverge from that taken by the U.S. Ankara refused to provide logistical support to the West’s campaign again Saddam Hussein in 2003. Emiliano Alessandri of Italy’s Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) notes, however, that was mostly out of fear of a Kurdish uprising.

   In 2010, Turkey voted against U.N. sanctions against Iran to dissuade that nation from developing nuclear weapons.

    In the economic sphere, Turkey’s increased emphasis on European Union and Middle Eastern trade may work to the detriment of American interests. However, from 2009-2010, U.S.-Turkish trade grew by 25%, according to theState Department’s Assistant Secretary for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, Jose W. Fernandez.     
   Despite the differences, a U.S. State Department background briefing notes that: “Turkey is really a partner with which we fully engage on the full range of global considerations.  Turkey is a key player, obviously, in the Middle East, a member of NATO in the region with Greece and Cyprus and the Caucasus and Afghanistan, on the energy issue, [and] on the counterterrorism issue…the relationship is already very deep and intensive.”  Secretary of State Clinton has stated that “The U.S. and Turkish partnership is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.”
   Despite Secretary Clinton’s enthusiasm, however, Ankara and Washington see the world through different prisms.  According to the IAI study, “Faced with an American counterpart only limitedly receptive of Turkish claims and views, Ankara’s growing inclination has been that of distinguishing itself from U.S. policies in the region, by emphasizing ‘soft’ power’ as opposed to hard means…This has led to initiatives that have created significant disagreement and tension with Washington, such as Ankara’s engagement with Hamas in Palestine, the [prior] shift from confrontation to cooperation with Syria…but also to valuable mediating efforts, such as Ankara’s brokerage in 2008 of peace talks between Syria and Israel.”
   Turkey’s relations with Israel remain an occasional problem for America. One of the lowest points occurred in the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010, when, as described by the Congressional Research Service:
  The pro-Palestinian free Gaza Movement and the pro-Hamas Turkish Humanitarian Relief Fund organized a six ship flotilla to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza and to break Israel’s blockade.  [Although Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2005, it retained control of the borders and imposed a blockade on certain goods in the aftermath of Hamas’ 2007 forcible takeover.] The ships refused an Israeli offer to deliver goods to the [port of] Ashdod [for inspection.]…Israeli naval forces intercepted the convoy in international waters.  They took control of five of the ships in international waters without resistance.  However some activists on a large Turkish passenger vessel challenged the commandos.  The confrontation resulted in eight Turks and one Turkish-American killed, more than 20 passengers injured, and 10 Israeli commandos injured…Turkey…considered the acts unjustifiable and in contravention of international law.”
The Islamist Question
    U.S. friendship with Turkey has been criticized by Americans who are concerned with what they perceive to be the increasingly Islamist nature of the Ankara government.  According to Islam-Watch.org., “After the Islamists came to power in 2002 and opened the gates of gradual Islamization of Turkey, after 8 decades of strict secular rule, Turkey has risen to be the world’s ‘number one honor killing country,’ with a killing rate 5 times higher than that of Pakistan, known to be notorious for honor killing.” A Daily Callerarticle noted that the Islamist government “is gradually removing the country’s secularist political rules, suppressing free-speech, promoting Shariah Islamic laws and supporting the Hamas terror group’s efforts to eliminate Israel.”  The article quotes Turkish affairs expert Barry Rubin‘s statement: “A lot of people in Turkey are astounded by Obama’s policy [favoring the current regime in Ankara]…the regime has thrown hundreds of people in prison without trial or evidence…and it is turning Turkey into a repressive police state…”
Defense Issues
     As Iran develops nuclear weapons, Syria continues its belligerence, the threat of terrorism continues and the “Arab Spring” poses serious questions, the issue of defense is the key consideration in Turkish-American relations.  In a 2011 study, the Congressional Research Service noted that “How Congress and the administration manage defense cooperation with Turkey in this evolving context is likely to have a significant bearing on U.S. national security interests, as well as on both U.S. and Turkish calculations of the mutual benefits and leverage involved in the cooperative relationship.”

    It remains to be seen whether the Ankara government’s increasingly Islamist nature will have foreign policy implications.  While the trend has not proved beneficial to the West in many other nations, Turkey’s long standing relationship with NATO, and, frankly, its commonality of interest with the U.S. may produce helpful results.  Certainly, a belligerent Iran and a homicidal Syrian regime are of concern to both nations.