Suddenly, size matters.
That’s the central conclusion of a lengthy Washington Post article Monday that sought to assess the national security implications of Iran’s 2007 move into leftist Sandinista President Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.
The newspaper’s badly belated first weigh-in on the Islamic Republic’s most northern presence in the Americas wound up fixating on a curious detail: the physical size of the Iranian embassy there.
Was it a huge mega-embassy, as some U.S. officials have said? A smallish embassy? Something mid-range but perhaps aspiring to be architecturally grandiose?
The Post’s writers, offering no basis for such a wacky thesis, seem to have been guided by their own inexpert, uninformed extrapolation: that the bigger the physical facility, the more serious a threat can be posed. Conversely, the smaller the facility, the slighter the threat.
The Post’s conclusion, perhaps unsurprisingly? No “super-embassy.” Therefore, no security threat from the Iranians.
“The mysterious, unseen giant embassy,” the Post report concludes high up in the fifth paragraph after a big windup, “underscores how Iran’s expansion into Latin America may be less substantive than some in Washington fear.”
The story then sought to inject something like an ultimate irony. The only giant mega-embassy around Nicaragua is … the American one.
No national security establishment experts are quoted anywhere in the story setting forth this link between mission size and threat. As a reporter, I’m always open to credible new ideas and information. But in my many years of national security reporting, this is the first I’ve ever heard that building size could be so imperiling.
The first red flag here is that this striking new postulation seems to be coming only from people like me, other reporters. One can only suppose that the Post reporters did not consult academics and counterterrorism experts about this idea because they would have been laughed right out of the room.
As I’ve written here before, I was the first and for too long the only American reporter to have actually gone to Nicaragua to investigate Iran’s move into the country. My main conclusion was that so much stealth and secrecy surrounded the Iranians that outside observers could only resort to speculation about Iranian intentions, good and evil.
I’ve been to the Iranian embassy in Managua, described it in my writings, and published pictures I took of it.
For the record, I assessed the thing from every possible angle not blocked by 12-foot-high walls. I even climbed to the top of a neighboring building, creeping around on a creaky roof high above the street, to get a good look at the new mission’s grounds.
I don’t know the square footage. But the Iranians have set up in a sizeable mansion in the tony Las Colinas neighborhood of Managua. The mansion was bigger and nicer than anything I’ll ever be able to afford, like all the other huge mansions in the neighborhood. The grassy grounds around it are parklike with a lot of tropical trees and foliage. It’s no mega-embassy, like the Post’s big investigation of the Iranians in Nicaragua ultimately concluded.
But when it came time to write my story, I didn’t bother mentioning facility size because, well, to be quite candid, the notion that its size might indicate national security threat levels, or much of anything at all, was just too ludicrous to get onto my radar.
Everyone knows terrorists have worked out of one-bedroom apartments. They’re almost famous for tinkering with bombs in hidden confined spaces. Heck, Timothy McVeigh used an old storage shed to build his fertilizer bomb. The Iranians’ Buenos Aires embassy was hardly a super mega-building when operatives posing as diplomats planned and executed huge bombings against a Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy in 1992 and 1994.
In my own coverage, I quoted academics and security specialists opposing one another over what Iran was up to in Nicaragua. I showed that I at least tried to figure things out on the ground. I discovered the Nicaraguan government was allowing Iranian men in and out of the country without visas. I’ve reported that big Iranian development promises have come to naught.
But I work for a newspaper of relatively limited means and could only get 10 days in-country with a lot of ground to cover. In the end, I was only able to raise more questions.
Since filing my story in November 2007, I’ve craved to know what my press colleagues with more resources would find on their own subsequent trips that would surely follow.
I just assumed more serious inquiries were imminent because: Iran. Is. A. Big. Important. Story.
There’d been so much fuss over Iran’s expanding partnerships with South American regimes during ever noisier saber rattlings over its nuclear weapons program. International sanctions were mounting. The U.S. listed Iran as an enthusiastic sponsor of terrorist organizations in Latin America like Hezbollah. Argentina had just indicted scores of senior Iranian officials for the Buenos Aires bombings a decade earlier. A new American president had come to office with a fresh diplomatic approach to all of this.
But not one of my esteemed colleagues followed me down to Managua — until just now. And the best the Post could do was to show some American officials had used hyperbole to describe the Iranian presence?
Sigh. Such a squandered opportunity.
So as of today, still no one knows what the Iranians are really doing in a country too poor to benefit them in normal trade. The Post could have used its considerable resources to delve into that worthwhile question, producing answers of any sort, advancing the ball even a little bit more.
But instead the Post leaves the American people and an Obama foreign policy apparatus with nothing more than that the embassy isn’t big enough to project a threat. It’s a safe bet the dismissive tone of the story won’t incite more journalistic inquiry from the Post for a long time to come.
I called former FBI agent Jim G. Conway, who specialized in counter-terrorism programs in Mexico and was involved in the Argentina bombing investigations before his retirement last year. I ran the Post’s story by him, asking for an assessment about the proposition that embassy size means something. Here’s what he told me, in part:
My view is one of major concern regardless of the physical size of the embassy.
We know that Iranian missions, embassies, or consulates provide “cover” for the Iranian intelligence apparatus, be it MOIS or IRGC (Quds forces). That apparatus, as evidenced by the Buenos Aires attacks and subsequent investigations (of which I was involved), shows that Hezbollah in concert with Iran intelligence within the embassy can carry out attacks on “soft” Israeli or western targets.
In many of these countries we see the coalescence of four variables that make for a dangerous situation: 1) Iranian diplomatic presence, 2) Hizballah cells in place, collecting intel, raising money, doing target assessments, etc., 3) access to arms and explosives, and 4) weak, incapable and/or corrupt police and local intel services.
From a global perspective, and with the recent saber rattling we’ve seen with Iran and the West, should something push us beyond the tipping point with Iran or our ally Israel the Iranians could strike U.S. and/or Israeli targets quickly in Latin America.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep wondering what the Iranians are really up to down there.