Tehran's Friends in America's Backyard

by Hal Weitzman

It sounded like something out of a spy novel, or a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster.

A disheveled Iranian-American used car salesman living in Corpus Christi, Texas, but secretly acting on behalf of Tehran’s Islamist regime, recruits an explosives expert from a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, offering him $1.5 million to plant a bomb in a restaurant in Washington, DC.

Yet United States government agents claimed to have uncovered exactly such a plot in October 2011. What’s more, the plotters were said also to be planning to bomb the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.

The alleged plan – detailed in a federal indictment brought by the U.S. attorney general and the FBI – seemed to make unlikely bedfellows of a sworn foe of the United States and an enemy of its war on drugs, bringing them together to perpetrate what would have been the most high-profile terrorist incident on American soil in a decade.

Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently was astounded. “The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. Outrageous as the alleged attempt to shed blood within the United States was, perhaps more alarming was the idea of an operational alliance between the Quds Force – a covert intelligence group within the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader – and the Zetas, a drug cartel founded by former Mexican commandos. The prospect of an alliance between two such disparate groups is deeply troubling.

But on closer inspection, the case may not be quite as it seems. The Mexican explosive expert who agreed to the job was in fact a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency informant. Whether a Mexican drug cartel actually would have collaborated is unknown. Gangs like the Zetas so far have confined themselves to drug crimes, most within Mexico. That they would freelance as political assassins within the United States struck many experts as unlikely.

Moreover, it remains unclear to what extent the accused Iranian-American was in fact acting on orders from the government in Tehran. Afshon Ostovar, an expert on Iran at the Center for Naval Analyses, said the plot was “drastically out of step with the modus operandi” of the Quds Force. “That really just doesn’t fit what they usually do,” Ostovar noted.

United States government officials, though, said the order may have come from a rogue element within the regime, suggesting that some in the Iranian intelligence community view Latin America as a potential base from which to launch activities within the United States.

Look beyond the drug-fueled gang violence that has plagued Mexico in the past few years to the rest of Latin America and that is not so surprising. Iranian influence in the region has been growing for years.

The Islamic Republic and militant Islamist groups have a deadly history in Latin America. In 1992, Islamic Jihad bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and wounding 242. The following day, a suicide bomber struck a commuter flight in Panama, killing all 21 passengers, 12 of them Jews. Many experts believe that attack to be linked to Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group.

In 1994, a car bomb exploded outside the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring more than 300 in Argentina’s bloodiest terrorist incident. After years of cover-ups and bungled investigations, in 2006 Argentina formally accused Iran of directing the attack, and Hezbollah of carrying it out. In 2007, Interpol placed six Iranians on its international arrest list in connection with the bombing. Yet in the past few years Iran has embarked on a diplomatic offensive in Latin America, building a range of political and commercial ties. Tehran has found allies among a wave of radical leftwing presidents – chiefly Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

These leaders view Iran as an intrepid David, standing up for its national sovereignty against the imperialistic Goliath of the United States – a myth that reflects U.S. military interventions in Latin America. Ahmadinejad and Chávez have declared a strategic alliance on this foundation.

But Tehran’s growing influence in the region has not been confined to Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It also has included governments less easily dismissed as reflexively anti-American.

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Iran has opened six new embassies in Latin America, including in such right-of-center countries as Chile and Colombia, both of which have pro-American governments that have signed free trade agreements with the United States.

This may not exactly be a heart-warming development, but does it really matter? Traditionally, Americans see Latin America as an unimportant region, irrelevant to global politics. Why should we care that Iran is making new friends there?

To understand why, consider the bigger Iranian story: the global race to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear capability. That tale, too, has a South American twist.

Two events highlight why Iran’s growing clout in Latin America is not simply a concern but an active threat. According to a 2010 report in a respected German newspaper, Caracas had struck a deal with Tehran that allowed Iran to establish a missile base in Venezuela. Here was one of America’s loudest opponents in the hemisphere, and it was reportedly hosting a missile base for a radical Islamist power bent on acquiring nuclear capability.

Chávez long has expressed support for Tehran’s nuclear program. He said he favored Iran’s plan to produce nuclear energy as far back as 2006, but he also denied that Iran had any plan to develop nuclear weapons. Moreover, in 2007 Chávez, well known for his fiery rhetoric against Israel, broke with Ahmadinejad’s call to wipe Israel off the map. “I don’t support causing harm to any nation,” he said.

The second Iran-related story has to do with Iran’s improved ties with Brazil, a moderate country not known for anti-Americanism.

In 2010, Brazil and Turkey forged a deal with Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel for a civilian research reactor. Since both Turkey and Brazil had seats on the United Nations Security Council at the time, the deal undermined the United States’ attempts to stiffen UN economic sanctions against Tehran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was seething. In in the end she got her way, and the UN approved new sanctions. But the incident demonstrated that Iran’s attempts to develop ties with countries in Latin America could have serious consequences.

The real question is how Iran has been able to increase its influence in a region that the United States has regarded as its backyard, a natural zone of influence since the early 19th century. We might have thought that after a wave of democracy swept through Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, the Western Hemisphere would be even more closely united by both geography and a common system of government, and therefore resistant to overtures by dictatorial Islamist regimes.

In 1994, the western hemisphere had been united in that way. At the Summit of the Americas in Miami, then-President Bill Clinton sketched out an initiative for a free-trading bloc that “will stretch from Alaska to Argentina.” Every leader in the region except Cuba’s Fidel Castro enthusiastically agreed to the plan. Yet within a decade, the United States had abandoned the project in the face of Latin American opposition, and American influence in the region had fallen to the lowest point in history. So how did the United States lose South America?

The reasons essentially are threefold: the failure of U.S.-backed economic reforms in Latin America; America’s disengagement with the region after 9/11; and the desire of emerging powers such as Brazil to make their own voices heard on the global stage.

First, in the 1990s, the United States fell out of favor with many in the region for its enthusiastic backing of free-market policies, which caused social and economic upheaval without significantly denting the perennial problems of poverty and inequality. By insisting on reducing the state’s role in the economy, the reforms produced weaker governments. This tarnished America’s reputation and smoothed the path for leaders such as Chávez, Morales, and Correa.

Secondly, although President George W. Bush made early overtures toward Latin America, after 9/11 his administration lost all interest in the region. Washington developed a case of foreign policy hyperopia – the inability to focus on things that are close by. Its sudden lack of interest created a vacuum that China, Russia, and Iran are trying to fill. China wanted access to the oil, minerals, and grains produced by the resource-rich continent. Russia sought a market for arms sales and a toehold in a region long controlled by its historic rival. Iran was looking for international support among emerging powers and access to such strategic minerals as uranium.

Thirdly, America’s lack of interest came at the same time that the economies of South America began to grow in earnest. China’s rapid industrialization pushed up the prices of the region’s natural commodities, pouring wealth into South America at exactly the time that the United States and Europe were in economic collapse.

This produced a newfound international self-confidence, particularly in Brazil. Poised to overtake France and the United Kingdom to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy, Brazil wanted to match its economic clout with political clout. Hence its desire to broker the Iran nuclear issue.

That provided an opportunity for the United States to forge a new partnership with Brazil and promote a common voice for the Americas – perhaps in collaboration with Canada, Mexico, and Argentina. To be fair, in the wake of the Brazil-Iran deal, the United States and Israel have stepped up their diplomatic efforts in the region. Yet Latin America remains a relatively low priority for the United States.

That is not only a missed opportunity. In the face of Iran’s increasing influence in Latin America, it is dangerous folly.

Hal Weitzman’s book, Latin Lessons: How South America Stopped Listening to the United States and Started Prospering, was published in February. He is the Financial Times’ correspondent in Chicago, where he is a member of Anshe Emet Synagogue.

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