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.