Iran is increasing its military and espionage presence rapidly throughout Latin America, according to U.S. and Israeli officials, turning the region into a major base for terrorism and subversion.
The disturbing trend has been building for several years and has deep roots in a presence that Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups have had in South America for at least two decades, experts say.
Now, though, it’s becoming quite open, with Iran using its consulates to erect front companies for smuggling and forging strong ties with an emerging anti-American coalition led by Venezuela and including leftist regimes in Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
Using ties to drug cartels and insurgent movements like the FARC, a formidable guerrilla and narcotics trafficking group based in Colombia, Iran has forged a smuggling network for small arms, missiles, drugs and perhaps, nuclear and biological weapons, according to some experts.
The alarm generated by the network is prompting military and intelligence officials in several countries to speak out. Consider: On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Iran of "subversive activity" in Latin America that dwarfs any threat posed by Russia, a former Cold War enemy plagued by an aging, decrepit military. On Wednesday, Israel expelled Venezuela's envoys in Tel Aviv in response to their country's severing of relations with Israel over its war in Gaza. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, aligning himself with Hamas, has called Israel’s leaders “war criminals.” He’s even labeled U.S. ally Colombia, another perceived enemy, as “Latin America’s Israel.” In November, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the ties between South American guerilla movements and Iranian terror organizations have been sharpening and are now easily observed. For Iran, the goal is to use Latin America to break the international sanctions placed against it over its contentious nuclear program. Iran also has enlarged its missions in Venezuela, Uruguay, Mexico, and Colombia, according to U.S. and Israeli sources. Iranian embassies in these countries are staffed by an "astronomical number" of diplomats, in no proportion to their needs, according to a 2007 Israel Foreign Ministry study. In Nicaragua, for example, there are 30 Iranian diplomats, with a similar number in Venezuela and other countries. Israel fears that these are intelligence operatives also involved in terror. For years, groups such as Hezbollah have had a dominant presence in the Tri-Border region of South America. There, in a smuggling haven known as Ciudad del Este, they’ve built strong fundamentalist communities with mosques fully integrated into the city’s ruling structure. It was from there that several terror attacks have been launched, including the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people, and the 1994 attack that leveled the Jewish community center there and killed 85.
“I'm more concerned about Iranian meddling in the region than I am the Russians," Gates told the U.S. Senate's armed services committee this week.
"I'm concerned about the level of frankly subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America," Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican. "They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries.”
Iran has also enlarged its missions in U.S allies like Mexico and Colombia.
Iran is continually searching for openings, and countries it can penetrate, to compensate for the vulnerability created by the [economic] sanctions" against it, Livni told Israeli Army Radio recently.
"We are witness to the disturbing phenomenon of Iranian infiltration into South America, so much so that Latin America has become a convenient base for spreading Iranian political and economic ideology," Livni said. "The strengthening of ties between South American guerrillas and the Iranian terrorism activists is plain to see."
Since 2000, Chavez has been to Tehran seven times for extensive deal-making that has produced at least $20 billion of arrangements “more opaque than the funds of Bernie Madoff,” according to Douglas E. Schoen, author of “The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.”
In mid-January, Turkey stopped an Iranian shipment headed to Venezuela with 22 containers labeled as tractor parts. "The equipment was enough to set up an explosives lab," a customs official told the Associated Press.
Further, Chavez has welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Caracas several times to strengthen their connection and extend to him oil dependencies in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
None of these nations, incidentally, has an explicit connection with Iran, but all of them voted against 2006 U.N. Security Council Resolutions sanctioning Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Schoen believes that Hamas could use Venezuela to engage in asymmetric warfare against Israel in South America, or its ally the United States.
“Chavez is an expert in asymmetric war and deception, a strategic ally of Iran in a declared war against the ‘evil empire’ of America and a harbormaster for Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorist groups in Latin America,” they write.
“He has all the weapons needed to terrorize the U.S., including the capacity to build a dirty bomb — or another biological weapon — and the ability to move money or materials across American borders at will through the 14,000 American gas stations he owns.”
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