Iran Setting Up Shop South of the Border

It is often said in matters of love and real estate that timing is everything. Now, strange though the application may seem, the same cliche can be said about Iran's steady march north through Latin America right up to the U.S. southern border.

While America's political and diplomatic glitterati are riveted on Mexico's civil drug war -- and Mexico is appropriately busy managing its biggest existential peril since Pancho Villa -- the Islamic Republic of Iran is about to slip into the country before anyone really notices.

Late last month, the mullahs sent emissaries to Mexico City to pitch vastly expanded trade ties of the sort that, at least in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, have given national security establishment types the hives.

According to a February 27 press release put out by Mexico's department of foreign relations, Secretary Maria Lourdes Aranda Bezaury met with Tehran's deputy foreign minister for the Americas, Ali Reza Salari. The Mexicans fielded an Iranian proposal to expand ties in the "political, economic, and cultural arenas," the release stated.

There was one short AP wire story on February 26 about the meeting that got no play in the United States, then complete silence.

Granted, the bilateral problem of rampaging Mexican drug gangsters justifies every bit of the attention it's getting, including the  visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a presidential visit by Barack Obama, one by Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, and at least two congressional delegations.

But since relations with Iran about its nukes also are sky high on Obama's foreign policy agenda, I thought the Iranian overture to Mexico City was worth at least a few reportorial phone calls. It turns out once again, as with my coverage of Iran's move into Nicaragua, that I remain the only U.S. reporter to inquire. Here's what I learned:

First, I wanted to take Mexico's pulse on the Iranian overture, especially in light of how Mexico's closest, most interdependent ally, the U.S., and every president since the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage crisis, has viewed Iran. I wondered what Mexico might say now that the Bush administration has gone home and Obama is in, the first president since 1979 -- Democrat or Republican -- bearing olive tree branches for Iran.

Tehran has kept a minuscule diplomatic presence in Mexico City since the days of the shah. (Iran's website for its diplomatic mission in Mexico City lists a Hotmail account to reach personnel and two of the three phone numbers are no longer in service.)

Back then, though, the two countries, being big oil producers, were wedded by the mutual interest of petroleum economics and friendly relations with the U.S. But Mexico's relationship with Iran since 1979 has degraded to a mere presence in each other's countries, with a scant $50 million in annual trade, partly because of Mexican deference to its northern neighbor's feelings and partly because Tehran hated Mexico's friendliness toward the shah.

Even with Obama in, I reasoned, Mexico couldn't be totally insensitive to U.S. historic feelings about Iran. There were U.S.-led international economic sanctions against Iran for breaking global nuclear disclosure agreements. There was the U.S. designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terror. Of late, Iran has been caught red-handed sowing Quds Force attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Undisputed evidence has revealed Iranian involvement in terror attacks, kidnappings, assassinations worldwide, and terrorist group support from Argentina and the tri-border region of South America to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

I called and emailed Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, who has always kindly returned my past interview requests. After a week of messages from me asking about Iran, though, the ambassador couldn't find the time.

I also emailed Mexico's ambassador to Iran, Carlos Tirado, multiple times, asking to take Mexico's temperature on the Iranian proposal. No response. Finally, a Mexican diplomat who requested anonymity called back, probably just to shut me up.

The diplomat said Mexico welcomed Tehran's proposal with open arms and considered it no different from any other. The diplomat explained that this was the new way of the world since the Obama administration has shown open-mindedness about Iran.