Iran Setting Up Shop South of the Border

"Our diplomats listened. We welcomed it and we'll take it from there, same as Obama," the diplomat said. "I think the Obama administration made it very clear that they would not push other countries the way the Bush administration used to." And anyway, the diplomat said, "We won't respond to public pressure on that score."

So does that mean the Mexicans see a bit of a green light from the north?

To find out, I approached Hillary Clinton's U.S. State Department, figuring that almost certainly reservations had been expressed to the Mexicans. Instead, I was surprised to learn that the Iranian proposal of three weeks earlier hadn't even registered.

I got Andy Lane, a State Department spokesman based in Washington, D.C., on the horn.

"To be honest," Lane told me, "this is the first I'm hearing of it."

He promised to Google for the information, go check the government's official position, and get back to me.

While waiting, I called another State Department official whom I knew was closely involved in bilateral diplomacy and the upcoming delegation visits to Mexico. That official was equally perplexed by the news of Iran's Mexico idea float, saying, "This is the first I've probably ever heard about this, and to tell you the truth it's probably something that's not going to come up (during the official U.S. visits) -- unless it's somehow forced onto the agenda."

Alas, Lane called me back with the first official American response on the matter. He read this to me from a prepared statement: "Many countries in the hemisphere have relations with Iran and it is their sovereign right to pursue relations with any country that they choose."

So at least officially, the Obama administration seems to be flashing a green light to Mexicans who think they see a green light. You heard it here first.

To be sure, not everyone is of one mind about whether there's danger in Iran setting up this close to the U.S. border. Informed experts like Gary Sick, a Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs professor, told me Iran is merely breaking its UN-imposed isolation as any persecuted country would, by reaching out to oil-producing or oil-consuming nations in Africa, India, China, and quite naturally Latin America.

"The outreach to Mexico doesn't strike me as dramatically different from many of the things they've been doing," Sick said. "It's obviously in their interest to have relations with other oil producers. I don't see this as being a lot more than that."

I asked: but what about Iran's history of staging terror attacks like those against Argentina in the early 1990s, the state sponsor of terror designation, the international kidnappings, fielding Hezbollah, and, more recently, orchestrating anti-coalition military operations in Iraq using embassies as cover?

Sick said he saw only economic interest, not any kind of terrorist threat to the U.S., in Iran's expanding system of Latin American outposts.

"Among all the problems facing the U.S., I'd put that one as close to the bottom as you could get. The Iranians have so little capability," he said.

But other well-informed people with long, detailed knowledge about Iran's record of mischief abroad don't see it that way -- at all.

Oliver "Buck" Revell served as associate deputy director in charge of all FBI counterintelligence and international affairs. As someone who has overseen his share of covert ops against the Iranians, Revell told me he doubted his old nemesis would ever be so audacious as to mount a direct attack from Mexico -- unless Israel attacks Iran by way of American airspace over Iraq or with some other perceived U.S. support.

But, he told me, the Iranians could certainly use a Mexico base to support one elsewhere in the vicinity. From Mexico, Iranian mischief makers could tap into a fount of narcotics trafficking, black market money, and general lawlessness to build a counterespionage capability, just as possible as in staunchly U.S.-hating countries like Venezuela.

"They could create back channels and cells, get more capability, more contacts, and more resources. There are many, many opportunities if they get a foothold in Mexico that could be harmful to both Mexico and the U.S., and I think we'd have to take a very vigorous intelligence posture and ultimately perhaps more. If I was in Secretary Clinton's position, I'd be giving Obama a lot of advice ... not to forget about the threats that have always been there and are expanding."

An unprecedented number of high-level contacts are about to begin between the Americans and Mexicans in the coming weeks. If the Americans want to ask the Mexicans about Iran they'll certainly be in a very good position to do so.

The Iranians certainly intend to talk to the Mexicans some more about themselves, at the same high level. That's what I was told this week when I called Iran's Mexico City-stationed ambassador, Mohammad Hassan Ghariri Abyaneh. The good ambassador's assistant, Maribel Benitez, told me through an interpreter that his schedule was too full to speak to me at least to the end of next month. She said to stay tuned, though, because he is scheduled to have several "official" events soon, including a meeting with President Calderon.

Presumably after Calderon finishes with President Obama.