Iran in our backyard: Trouble on the horizon in Latin America
Thirty years ago with his rise to power and inception of a new radical Shiite Islamic government in oil-rich Iran, the country’s new leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, proclaimed aspirations of exporting his Islamic revolution, and expanding Iran’s power to the four corners of the world. A few weeks ago, a major step was taken in the realization of Khomeini’s dream, when the regime’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received the red-carpet treatment in an official visit to Brazil. Ahmadinejad’s arrival in South America’s largest country is the latest development in Tehran’s growing push into Latin America that began nearly 20 years ago. While recent U.S. administrations have been focused on the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to the stability of the Middle East, officials seem to have overlooked the even more pressing threat from Iran to our national security brewing in our own backyard.
Perhaps the most visible signs of Iran’s nefarious activities in Central and South America come directly from its fully funded proxy, Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Hezbollah, through funding and orders from Iran, has been targeting Americans since the early 1980s, and was directly responsible for carrying out the bombing of U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983 that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. servicemen. Since the early 1990s, Hezbollah has expanded its tentacles beyond the Middle East, creating a South American stronghold in the remote and lawless region known as the Tri-border, which consists of the area connecting the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. With the help of sympathetic Shiite Muslim Lebanese immigrants living in the region, Hezbollah has used the Tri-border for terrorist training camps, a base to launch terrorist bombing attacks in South America and a safe haven to funnel millions of dollars from their narco-trafficing and illegal smuggling activities to their headquarters in the Middle East.
According to Argentine official reports, the first signs of Hezbollah’s South American terrorist activities occurred in March 1992, when the group’s operatives bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that destroyed the embassy, a nearby school and a Catholic Church, ultimately claiming 29 lives and wounding more than 200 people. Argentine officials also traced the July 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires AMIA Jewish community center to Hezbollah and Iranian operatives from the Tri-border that claimed the lives of 85 people and wounded more than 300. Investigations of both bombings conducted by Interpol and the FBI concluded that, in addition to Hezbollah’s role in the bombings, the attacks were directly ordered by then-Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Yet, Hezbollah’s terrorism has not been limited to the Tri-border. U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who heads the U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that Hezbollah was directly linked to drug-trafficking in Colombia. According to reports from the U.S. Southern Command, Hezbollah earns between $300 and $500 million alone from its narco-trafficing in South America, and has been working closely with Colombian terrorist group FARC. Last October, Colombian officials said they had destroyed a cocaine and money-laundering ring used to fund Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America and the Middle East.
Not surprising, as a result of the decades-long Iranian-Venezuelan military alliance, Hezbollah also has a strong presence in Venezuela. The terror group openly operates in Venezuela and its members hold high-level government positions in the country. According to a June 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Treasury, Venezuelan diplomat, Ghazi Nasr al Din, has been providing financial support to Hezbollah and helped facilitate travel for Hezbollah officials to and from Venezuela. In October 2006, homemade bombs traced to Hezbollah operatives were placed in front of the U.S. Embassy in the country’s capital of Caracas and later defused by local police.
While some may dismiss Hezbollah’s potential threat as one exclusive to South America, a Hezbollah operative of Mexican citizenship was arrested in 2002 in Mexico after he admitted to helping smuggle other Hezbollah operatives across the border into the U.S. Even more disturbing are Hezbollah’s countless official Spanish language websites based in Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin American, which post photos of the terror group’s armed members calling for a holy war against America.
Aside from Iran’s involvement in Latin America through its proxy Hezbollah, the regime has in recent years developed closer ties with governments in the region that have not shared warm relations with the U.S., including those of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Uruguay, Peru and even Cuba. Though facing growing international pressure and economic isolation as a result of its clandestine nuclear enrichment activities, Tehran has gained significant support from Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chavez and its multi-million dollars investments in several Latin American nations.
Besides Chavez, a clear example of this strategy occurred in 2007 with Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega beginning new expansive political, economic and military ties with Iran. Ortega since has welcomed hundreds of Iranian diplomats to the capital of Managua, as well as millions of dollars in Iranian and Venezuelan investments to develop both a new deep-water port and a dry canal in his country. No doubt such maritime projects easily could be used in the future for military purposes by Iran’s regime or its proxies in the Pacific.
Tehran’s strategy of buying its political and military support among many Central and South American countries with anti-American governments has paid off, thus far, with the exception of Argentina and Colombia, which have both suffered as a result of Iranian state-support for terrorism in their nations. The only remaining major force in the region for Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in Iran to win over has been Brazil, whose leadership under President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva has now fully embraced the Iranian regime. According to a report from the Iranian-based Keyhan newspaper last week, Brazil’s Ambassador to Iran, Antonio Luis Espinola Salgado, announced his country’s opposition to United Nations sanctions against Iran and said that his country was ready for nuclear cooperation with Iran.
Political analysts in the West and Latin America have been baffled at Lula’s Iranian overtures, given that Brazil, unlike Iran, is a vibrant and economically stable democracy with strong ties to the United States and has no need for Iranian oil. Many have wondered why Lula and his government have, in essence, thrown diplomatic and economic lifelines to Iran, whose regime has been isolated in the West and has not been in compliance with U.N. Security Council demands to suspend nuclear enrichment activities.
Moreover, Brazilians who vocally and successfully demonstrated against Ahmadinejad’s proposed visit last year also are now disturbed at how their government has welcomed, and given legitimacy to, the Iranian dictator, despite his regime’s violent crackdowns against peaceful protestors following the recent elections in Iran, his bizarre anti-gay comments and his denial of the existence of the Holocaust. Ironically, it is unsettling to see Brazil and other Latin American countries that once provided safe havens for Nazi war criminals following World War II, now rewarding the Iranian government whose leadership has been denying the Holocaust and repeatedly calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state.
Undoubtedly, it’s easy for one to understand how struggling, developing countries in Latin America may be enticed to support Tehran as a result of the regime’s petro-dollars invested in their country. Yet, one is left to wonder how Brazil, which has been internationally recognized as an emerging democratic force in the world and after having recently secured the 2014 FIFA World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympic Games, would even consider any dialogue with Iran, which has become one of the world’s most heavily censured countries.
Additionally, with Brazil taking its temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council soon, it seems as if Lula’s government has become totally oblivious of its obligations to the international community to preserve global peace. Instead of shunning Iran and its leadership as pariah for sponsoring terrorism in Latin America, Lula and his government are rewarding Iran. Sadly, Lula has whole-heartedly given his support to the Iranian dictator who has repressed thousands of voices of opposition in his country, threatened its neighbors with total annihilation and thumbed its nose to the world with regards to the nuclear issue.
The threats from Iranian state-sponsored terrorism are more serious today, and even recognized by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates who expressed his concern in January about the Iranian regime’s subversive terrorist activities in Latin America before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. With Iran on the verge of gaining nuclear capabilities today, the current administration must look to develop effective policies for addressing the threat of terrorism our nation faces from Iran or Iranian pockets of support in the Western Hemisphere.
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning Iranian American journalist and attorney based in Southern California.