The Justice Department’s recent announcement that an Iranian agent attempted to recruit a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States presents an opportunity for the Obama administration finally to draw the line on Iran’s growing presence in the Western Hemisphere.
As we establish in a paper we co-authored recently for the American Enterprise Institute, “TheMountingHezbollahThreatinLatinAmerica,” over the past several years, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major push into the Western Hemisphere to gain access to strategic resources and establish a new platform from which to wage its war against the United States.
The State Department has been largely silent on this activity, however, and some senior members even appeared surprised by Iran’s brazenness in reaching out to a Mexican drug gang to do its dirty work. They shouldn’t have been.
The Iranian regime has been quite open and boastful about its actions, and its efforts largely have been facilitated by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran’s behalf with other radical populists in the region, primarily Presidents Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
In Venezuela, Iran has succeeded in building a deep-seated economic and military relationship running into the tens of billions of dollars that has made Venezuela one of Iran’s most important international allies. In recent years, Venezuela’s Margarita Island has become the center of Iranian and Hezbollah operations in the Americas. Mr. Chavez also has helped facilitate Iran’s development of a nuclear capability by helping it obtain uranium and blunt sanctions by providing it access to Venezuela’s banking system. Moreover, Germany’s DieWelt recently reported that Iran is planning to build medium-range missile bases in Venezuela, astride Panama Canal shipping lanes.
In Ecuador, Mr. Correa also has rolled out the welcome mat for Iran, giving it access to Ecuador’s banking system, landing Ecuador on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s money-laundering watchlist, and concluding mining agreements setting the stage for uranium-extraction deals.
In mineral-rich Bolivia, Iran also is eyeing its considerable deposits of uranium and other strategic minerals. Iran also financed a military academy to train military and civilian personnel in asymmetric warfare, a fancy name for subversion and terrorism. Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi was in Bolivia earlier this year to inaugurate the facility, telling the media, “Powerful Iran is ready to deliver a firm response to any hostile and unwise behavior by the United States.”
Incidentally, Gen. Vahidi happens to be wanted in Argentina for his role in the 1994 Iran-Hezbollah bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded more than 300.
In Mexico, U.S. law enforcement officials say the relationships between Iran, Hezbollah and drug cartels appear to be deepening. They point to Mexican drug traffickers’ increasing use of car bombs in waging their mayhem in Mexico, an expertise for which Hezbollah is particularly known, and they also point to the ongoing discovery of increasingly sophisticated narco-tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, which experts say resemble the type used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But Iran’s decision to go operational in trying to employ what it thought were assets in the Western Hemisphere to undertake a specific terrorist activity represents a radical escalation in its anti-American campaign. The State Department needs to mount a diplomatic offensive in the region calling on governments to cooperate in resisting the Iranian incursion, emphasizing that Iran has no legitimate national interest – and certainly lacks any shared history, culture or values – with the countries of the Western Hemisphere. The distant regime has no reason for establishing such a presence here other than to thwart international efforts to hold it accountable for its destabilizing and reckless behavior.
As for radical governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, which are unlikely to be receptive to U.S. entreaties, they should be informed in no uncertain terms that the anti-American fun and games are over and there will be a cost for cultivating ties with Tehran. The administration must work with Congress to develop a range of policy options to exact a price for their actions. This should include sanctions and law enforcement indictments against anyone seeking out economic and other arrangements with Iran.
The regional courtship of Iran must end before it is too late. Iran already has demonstrated the will to shed innocent blood in the Western Hemisphere. It cannot be allowed the opportunity to do so again.
By Roger F. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere in the George W. Bush administration, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas and Jose R. Cardenas, acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Bush administration and an associate with Vision Americas.