Roman D. Ortiz: Ayatollahs cast growing shadow in Latin America

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nomination last month of Ahmad Vahidi as defense minister starkly illustrates the danger posed by Iran’s Latin America penetration. Vahidi is wanted by Interpol in connection with the truck bombing of the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires 15 years ago that killed 85 people and wounded more than 300. Argentine investigators accuse Iran of planning and financing this attack and Hezbollah of executing it.

Responding to criticisms of his foreign policy during a pre-election debate in June, Ahmadinejad declared: “When the Western countries were trying to isolate Iran, we went to the U.S. backyard” — Latin America.

The Obama administration must take note. Ahmadinejad’s regime promises to have strategic repercussions in America’s neighborhood. The expansion of Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere — diplomatic, economic, military and terrorist infrastructure — has been rapid.

In little more than two years, the number of Iranian diplomatic representatives in the region has increased from six to 11 and the number of diplomatic personnel has grown proportionately. This multiplication of Iran’s ties with Latin America has been the result of a strategic convergence.

Tehran sees its penetration in the region as essential to its efforts to weaken Washington international influence. The radical leftist governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua view Iran as a partner with whom they share common ground: hostility towards the U.S. The result is an anti-American alliance in the heart of the Western Hemisphere.

The growth of political ties has been followed by an expansion of economic interests. Iran has invested in a huge array of industries in Venezuela, ranging from car factories to cement production plants. The Islamic Republic has agreed to build a refinery and a petrochemical plant in Ecuador. Tehran is also making efforts to increase its commercial and cooperation ties with Mexico and Brazil.

Furthermore, Iran is seeking to develop military ties with Venezuela. In 2007, Tehran signed an agreement to collaborate on defense matters, which has already resulted in the provision of a dozen Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At the same time Tehran has become a key partner in the development of the space program and the nuclear projects of Caracas and announced plans to build a munitions factory in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo.

The most worrisome Iranian activity in Latin America, however, is the establishment of terrorist infrastructures linked to Iran. Tehran employs a combination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — Vahidi was the head of IRGC’s Quds Force — and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah in its covert operations. The presence of both organizations in Latin America has substantially increased in recent years.

For example, the IRGC is cooperating closely with Venezuelan intelligence agencies. Tehran sent observers to military exercises organized by Caracas in 2008. Hezbollah has built a network of relations with Venezuelan citizens, making Caracas Hezbollah’s gateway into Latin America. As the U.S. Treasury Department denounced, one Venezuelan diplomat accredited in Beirut, Ghazi Nasr al Din, provided support to Hezbollah, including help with setting up its fund-raising apparatus in Latin America.

Hezbollah’s presence has been detected behind the proliferation of Shiite mosques in Ecuador. Hezbollah has been involved in the contraband of drugs in Colombia and in illegal immigrant traffic in Mexico. And the organization is expanding its presence in the region via proxies such as “Hezbollah Argentina” and “Hezbollah Venezuela.”

Tehran seeks to gain strategic advantages from its increased influence in Latin America in case its refusal to stop its nuclear program provokes a military confrontation with Washington or Jerusalem. Tehran wants to use the threat of retaliation by terrorist networks in Latin America under its control as a tool to dissuade the U.S. and Israel from launching an attack against its nuclear infrastructure.

In addition, the ayatollahs’ regime hopes its presence just south of the U.S. border forces Washington to pay more attention to the Western Hemisphere, leading to a reduction of America’s footprint in the Middle East.

Iranian penetration in the Western Hemisphere must be taken seriously and addressed. Elements of the Obama administration have preferred to minimize the destabilizing potential of Tehran’s infiltration so as not to deal with the strategic dilemmas arising from the fact that the war against terrorism has a front in Latin America. At the same time, the moderate Latin American governments lack the experience to fathom the menace and the resources to confront it.

The U.S. must curtail and counter Iran’s growing influence in Latin America so that terrorist attacks in this region cannot happen again and so that American actions to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program will not be constrained. This requires stepping up the pressure on both sides of the equation.

Washington should send a clear message to Teheran that it will not tolerate Iran-sponsored terrorist networks in Latin America. At the same time the Obama administration should impose diplomatic and commercial sanctions on those Latin American governments that are facilitating and supporting the Iranian destabilizing activities in the hemisphere.

Roman D. Ortiz, senior associate in the private security and defense consulting firm Grupo Triarius in Bogota, Colombia, is a professor at the School of Economy at Los Andes University in Bogota.

Reprinted from the Atlanta Constitution Journal Wednesday, September 9, 2009

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