The Mullahs in the Americas

Has the danger of Iranian activity in Latin America been exaggerated? It seems odd that serious analysts are asking such a question, given Tehran’s 32-year record of sponsoring terrorism, killing Americans, aiding rogue dictators, and undermining democracy across the globe. But since many commentators are now arguing that Iran’s hemispheric threat has been overblown, it’s worth reviewing a few basic facts.

In October, we learned that Iranian agents had been plotting with Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington at a D.C. restaurant. The foiled scheme spoke volumes about Tehran’s capacity for lethal aggression, not to mention its disregard for the most basic norms of international behavior. As Iran expert Reuel Marc Gerecht said at the time, the assassination plan indicated that the regime “is becoming more dangerous, not less, as it ages.”

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Saudi plot was an aberration, and that Iran generally has no intention of using its Latin American connections to launch terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Even under that excessively optimistic scenario, Tehran’s hemispheric activity would still be a major concern, for three reasons.

First: Iran’s partnership with energy-rich Venezuela has blunted the impact of Western sanctions. Even if America and Europe manage to impose the sort of “crippling” sanctions now under discussion, the Iranians will continue to have an economic lifeline in Caracas. Not only has the Chávez regime given Iran a massive amount of low-cost gasoline — Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA was sanctioned for these gasoline sales by the U.S. Treasury Department last May — Tehran has also used the Venezuelan financial system as a means of evading sanctions. In 2008, an Iranian bank and its Venezuelan subsidiary were sanctioned by Treasury for their ties to Iranian military forces. If we are to believe a secret 2009 Israeli foreign-ministry report obtained by the Associated Press, Venezuela has even provided Iran with uranium. (For that matter, we should note that Ecuador is another country with large uranium deposits and close strategic relations with Tehran.) In short, Venezuela has helped Iran advance its nuclear program and keep its economy afloat.

Second: Whether or not Iranian proxies eventually target the U.S. homeland, the growth of Tehran’s hemispheric footprint has unquestionably provided a boon to terrorist groups. Four years ago, Treasury announced that the Venezuelan government had been “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.” The Chávez regime also has extensive links to Colombian narco-terrorists (the FARC), links that were documented in a 2011 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. As Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has written, “Hezbollah’s ties to Latin American drug traffickers serve as a major source of funding for its operations world-wide.” Last summer, Peru’s former military chief of staff told the Jerusalem Post that Iranian organizations were collaborating with other terror groups in South America. A few months ago, the Washington Post confirmed that Tehran has stocked its (growing number of) embassies and diplomatic missions in Latin America with members of the paramilitary Quds Force, which was allegedly responsible for the Saudi assassination plot.

We don’t have to speculate about Iran’s willingness to carry out a terror attack in a Latin American country. Two decades ago, in March 1992, Tehran orchestrated a Hezbollah bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29. Then, in July 1994, Iranian agents conspired with Hezbollah to bomb a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital, killing 85. So you can understand why Latin American governments are deeply concerned about Iran’s burgeoning regional presence in general and its alliance with Chávez in particular. Memories of the Buenos Aires atrocities are still relatively fresh.

Third: The Iranian push into Latin America has already damaged regional stability and exacerbated geopolitical tensions. For example, it has augmented the enormous Venezuelan military buildup, which is being financed mainly by Russia and is threatening to unleash a regional arms race. Last spring, the German newspaper Die Welt reported that the Iranians were constructing rocket bases in Venezuela. Earlier this month, according to the U.S. News & World Report blog DOTMIL, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, told reporters that Tehran is also hoping to build military drones for Caracas — specifically, “fairly limited-capacity” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). “I would put it in the Scan Eagle class of UAV,” said General Fraser. It was just a few years ago that Chávez was sending thousands of troops to the Colombian border and talking of a possible war. Imagine how much more aggressive his regime might be with sophisticated Iranian weaponry.

Speaking of aggression, many commentators still assume that Iran would be wary of conducting terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But is that really a safe assumption? As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee in late January, the Saudi assassination plot suggests that “some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.” We might also observe that Iran and Venezuela were recently accused of considering cyber-attacks against the United States.

On March 7, Vice President Joe Biden told CNN en Español that “Iran will not be able to pose a hemispheric threat to the United States.” Indeed, Biden offered a “guarantee” that this would not happen. We can only hope the Obama administration reinforces that guarantee, not with more words but with a robust strategy for countering Iranian activity in Latin America.