By Luis Fleischman and Nancy Menges
Last year a bill titled “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” sponsored by Congressman Jeff Duncan was passed into law. This law mandated that the State Department issue a yearly report on Iran’s influence and activities in all of North, South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. As a result, on June 27 the State Department released their report to Congress on Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The State Department released an unclassified summary of policy recommendations, but it assessed that “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.” According to the report, the main reason this occurred is that international sanctions against Iran “have limited the economic relationship between the Western Hemisphere and Iran.”
The report cites the fact that the Treasury Department designated the Venezuelan Banco Internacional de Desarrollo as an entity targeted for sanctions as well as the state-owned oil company PDVSA. PDVSA was sanctioned for sending petroleum products to Iran. Likewise, sanctions were imposed on the Venezuelan Military Industry Company.
The report also points out that agreements between Iran and Western Hemisphere countries went unfulfilled.
The report also stresses that the United States has used diplomacy to work with regional allies to help isolate Iran. They have cited as successes the fact that Brazil, Chile and Mexico voted for a UN Human Rights Commission Special Rapporteur for Iran and that Canada, Colombia, Panama and Mexico voted in support of a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning Iranian involvement in the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.
The report states that the U.S. will continue to build a robust coalition of Latin American governments to focus on Iran’s human rights records and will continue to share information about Iran’s missile and WMD programs with relevant Western Hemisphere countries
The State Department’s analysis presents a number of problems that are important to note.
For one, it is not clear how international sanctions have affected relations between Iran and Latin America.
Iran’s trade with Latin America tripled between 2005 and 2008. Such an increase was not only with the ALBA countries, namely Venezuela’s allies, but mainly also with Brazil and Argentina. According to Iranian sources, Iran had exported around $43.7 billion worth of non-oil goods and imported some 61.8 billion worth of goods in 2011, thus reaching $105 billion in annual trade.
Furthermore, we have seen countries such as Uruguay sending a legislative delegation to Iran and its president stressing the idea that relations with Iran are good for the country. Moreover, the foreign minister of Uruguay is a former ambassador to Iran and a strong advocate of Iran-Uruguayan relations.
Argentina, whose own government once accused Iran of having been involved in the 1994 terrorist attack against the Jewish headquarters in Buenos Aires (AMIA), has signed an agreement with the Iranian government to include Iran in the investigation of the case. Argentina’s government initiative is very absurd as it expects the perpetrators to indict themselves. It is clearly not an attempt to solve the case but an attempt to normalize relations with Iran.
Along the same vein, the conservative president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera met with the Iranian ambassador and pledged further relations with the Iranian government.
Brazil, under the government of Luis Inazio Lula Da Silva, attempted, along with Turkey, to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis by offering a deal to the Iranians that exempted them from key responsibilities and avoided placing any practical limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
Even when the SD declared diplomatic victories (such as Canada, Colombia, Panama and Mexico’s support for a UN resolution condemning the Iranian involvement in the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.,) the simple question to ask is where were Brazil, Chile, Peru and the majority of the countries of the region? Perhaps what the State Department calls a success is only marginal and very limited in scope.
It is not clear how sanctions isolated Iran in the Western Hemisphere.
The State Department report seems to focus on imminent dangers rather than long -term dangers.
If the State Department claims that Iran does not constitute an immediate and impending danger to the United States, they have not provided sufficient arguments to prove this claim.
In the long run, the Iranian threat should be seen as the result of an alliance between two revolutions that are hostile to the United States. Both revolutions, the Islamic and the Bolivarian aim at eliminating American influence from the region and from the world.
In the context of a revolution that seeks to become a nuclear power, we need to think that Venezuela could become a strategic partner for Iran. In other words, if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it is possible that Venezuelan soil could be used to post nuclear missiles or that Iran’s alliances in Latin America could provide Iran with a strategic card that can turn into a threat to the United States. Similar in manner to the way the Cuban posting of Soviet nuclear missiles on its soil almost led to a major confrontation between the two superpowers in the early 1960’s.
Another dimension deserving of consideration is Hezbollah’s increased presence in various Latin American countries. For example, Venezuela and Ecuador have eased visa and citizenship requirements, making it easier for Islamists to become citizens of their countries.
What is more, Venezuela openly cooperates with Iran’s terrorist activities. The case of Ghazi Nasr El Din, a former business liaison at the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus is a case in point. El Din is Lebanese but acquired Venezuelan citizenship in 2002. He helped Hezbollah raise money and repeatedly met with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon in order to facilitate the travel of its operatives to and from Venezuela.
Hezbollah continues to recruit individuals in Latin America by reaching out to local Muslims and Arabs in the region. Training camps run by Hezbollah have been reported by several sources. The dangerous alliance between two revolutions hostile to the United States should not be ignored.
The claim made by the SD report, that most agreements between Iran with ALBA countries have not been implemented, should not be a source of relief. The reason is that the non-implementation of agreements may indicate that perhaps these agreements were mere facades for another type of cooperation, even more dangerous. Roger Noriega and his associates have denounced the presence of bicycle and other “civilian” factories as possible facades for more dangerous activities carried out by Hezbollah. There have also been reports of uranium extraction in Venezuela aimed at furthering Iran’s nuclear program.
By the same token, Hezbollah has clear connections with drug cartels and is involved in criminal activities that mainly involve drug trafficking. Hezbollah and the drug cartels help each other as drug cartels have strategic knowledge and access to the United States. The attempt by a member of the gang-cartel “Zetas” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in October 2011 proves the danger of such a connection. Hezbollah at the same time has used its expertise to help the drug cartels build tunnels that enabled them to transport drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border.
The question is whether the U.S. security, military and diplomatic establishment is working to counter these potential threats to our national security. Have we made the Iranian presence a priority in our interaction with countries of the region; or are we tolerating everything that is occurring in Latin America just because we are avoiding an open confrontation with these countries because we want to vindicate ourselves from past “sins” or because we expect nothing from most of them? Do countries in the region really view Iran with the same concern as we do? If not, what are we doing to persuade them?
Congressman Jeff Duncan, who introduced the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” pointed out that the SD did not consult with our allies in the region before they wrote the report. The question is why the SD did not do this. The answer is probably that those countries do not want to talk about the issue and we do not want to raise it. As long as the left dominates key countries in the region, the United States appears to be hesitant to voice its concerns and backs away from discussing issues of national security. For countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Iran is an ally. For other countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, a policy on Iran has a symbolic meaning. It has become a symbol of independence from U.S. dictates. This, in itself, is a challenge for the U.S. that is not clear if the State Department report has taken it into account.
A more complete and accurate report would have taken into account the long-term consequences of the Iranian presence in Latin America, and particularly the troubling relationship between the Islamic and Bolivarian revolutions. Given all the factors mentioned above, the danger needs to be considered as a gradual advance of the Iranian presence and needs to be tied to the degree for radicalization of the Bolivarian revolution, a factor that is not considered at all in the report. At the same time, the diplomatic activity necessary to persuade Latin American countries of the dangers posed by Iran and seek their cooperation is far higher than the one currently conducted. The United States has lost leverage and influence in the region. With the exception of Colombia, Mexico and a few others, most countries in Latin America are likely to ignore the U.S., unless the U.S. shows more determination in demanding cooperation.
Luis Fleischman is the author of the book, “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States.” Nancy Menges is the co-editor of the Americas Report.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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