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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.

“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.