Iran: A regional threat beyond the Middle East

Reuters

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez welcomes Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Miraflores Palace in Caracas June 22, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • It's time for US and other allies to acknowledge and confront growing threat of Iran's influence in Latin America

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  • Iran is cultivating ties with some of Latin America's most notorious rogue state actors

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  • Chavez has supported Hezbollah by allowing it to establish base of operations on Venezuelan territory

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In the past year the international community has taken unprecedented action to pressure the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions. For example, the U.S. and European Union have adopted comprehensive new sanctions measures aimed at tightening the economic noose around the regime, while a number of other nations have finally taken steps to curtail Iranian oil imports - striking at the economic heart of the regime. These actions are having a tangible effect on Iran's economy as evidenced most demonstrably by the crash of Iran's currency, the rial, which has plummeted to historic lows in recent weeks.

Against this backdrop of increasingly effective and broad economic pressure, however, is a curious anomaly. Several countries in one region of the world are working to undermine international sanctions against Iran and some are even helping the Iranian regime engage in illegal activities such as money laundering and narco-terrorism. Surprisingly, these countries are not located in the Middle East, but rather in a region much closer to the United States: Latin America. It is time for the U.S. and other like-minded countries to acknowledge and confront this growing threat.

The Iranian regime's effort to improve ties with Latin America is working. Consider that in 2005, Iran only had six embassies in the region. Today, the number has increased to ten. Far more concerning than its increasing formal diplomatic presence, however, is Iran's opportunistic effort to improve ties with some of the region's most notorious rogue state actors.

The clearest and most publicized example of Iran building inroads in the Western Hemisphere is its connection with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. It is no secret that Venezuela and Iran enjoy a close relationship, with scores of Iranian companies establishing suspicious operations throughout the country.

What is less well-known is that Chavez has provided active support for Hezbollah by allowing it to establish a base of operations and provide terror training on Venezuelan territory. There is also ample evidence that the Chavez regime has facilitated cooperation between Hezbollah and Colombian and Mexican narco-traffickers.

While Venezuela is Iran's most notorious enabler in the region, other countries are also ramping up their support for Tehran. The most recent and blatant offender in this regard is Ecuador, which has been one of the most vocal proponents of Iran's development of so-called "peaceful nuclear energy." In July, Ecuador announced that it would defy international sanctions and purchase some $400 million of Iranian oil. Even more troubling, there is growing evidence that Ecuador's radical president Rafael Correa is actively facilitating Iran's illegal activities. For example, Ecuador plans to begin mining uranium in the next few years and in late 2009, signed an agreement with Iran "to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology."The entire international community should clearly be concerned by the prospect of an Ecuador-Iran alliance cemented by a steady supply of uranium ore to Tehran.

Like Venezuela, there are also growing concerns that Ecuador is helping finance Iran's illegal activities through money laundering. Iran intentionally avoided using Ecuador's Central Bank and instead used a small private bank, COFIEC, for financial transactions. The only plausible reason Iran would do this is to avoid scrutiny. Ecuador vociferously denies these reports but has refused to submit bank records for transparent analysis.

Internal minutes from a meeting between COFIEC and Iranian officials that leaked earlier this year specifically stated that the two would cooperate to "facilitate trade" and seek to expand cooperation with other countries and financial institutions not currently under sanctions.

Whether it is using drug cartel thugs from Mexico to plan a bombing in the heart of our nation's capital or reengaging with Argentina through diplomatic talks and developing ties with anti-American governments such as those of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, it is clear that Iran has a strategy to increase influence in Latin America. The U.S. ignores this growing regional threat at its own risk.

It is time for the U.S. to wake up to the reality that some of its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere are actively cooperating and facilitating Iran's nuclear ambitions and terrorist activities. The manner in which the U.S. counters this growing threat will no doubt vary by country, but one salient point must come to the fore - continued indifference is akin to rolling out the welcome mat for Iran to further spread its dangerous influence in the region.

The authors are board members of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

Cresencio S. Arcos, Jr. was the first assistant secretary and director of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, former senior deputy assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras under President George H.W. Bush.

Otto Reich was formerly assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and President George W. Bush's special envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives from 2001 to 2004.

Roger Noriega served as a senior policy advisor and alternate U.S. Representative to the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States.

Ambassador Mark D. Wallace served in the U.S. State Department, U.S. Mission to the United Nations as ambassador and U.S. representative for UN Management and Reform, and is currently the CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran.

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