Iran's Influence in Latin America

March 18, 2015

On March 18, the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a joint hearing about Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in Central and South America. The committees discussed Iran's attempts to expand its influence in Latin America during the last 30 years, as well as the Islamic Republic's alleged involvement in attacks in Peru and Uruguay and the mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. The following are excerpted statements from the subcommittee chairmen and testimony of the witnesses.

Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Jeff Duncan
 
“Given the impending deadline for nuclear negotiations over Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I believe it is critical for the U.S. to re-examine Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in our own neighborhood. Congress has conducted sustained, rigorous oversight on this issue with multiple Committee hearings, classified briefings, and the passage of legislation I authored, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, into law in 2012. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration continues to ignore this threat even while Iran and Hezbollah expand their reach. Following a September 2014 Government Accountability Office report that found the State Department failed to follow this law, the Administration has taken no concrete action to address these problems.”

Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
 
“Iran and Hezbollah’s history of involvement in the Western Hemisphere has long been a source of concern for the United States. Given the nature of transnational criminal networks existing in Latin America and the rise of terrorism ideology being exported worldwide from Middle East, it is disturbing that the State Department has failed to fully allocate necessary resources and attention to properly address this potential threat to our nation. It is well known that Iran poses a security threat to regional affairs and has expanded its ties in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. The United States needs a comprehensive understanding of Tehran’s efforts in Latin America in order to thwart any potential risk to our allies and U.S. national security.”
 
Jospeh M. Humire, Author of Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America
 
“Almost two years ago, I testified before another committee that Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere had grown tremendously over the last 30 years since the dawn of the Iranian revolution. At the time, there was sufficient evidence to make this statement; however, there was also evidence to suggest that Iran was reassessing its priorities, presence and activities in Latin America, due to the considerable political and economic changes happening both in the region and in Tehran.
 
A year and a half later, it is clear that the Islamic Republic maintains Latin America as a strategic priority for its global positioning and has become increasingly important as Iran enters its most critical stage in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. Under Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic seeks to build on its momentum over the last decade and expand its operations to move past its typical associations with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA).”
 
“At the tactical level, Iran uses its cultural penetration to gain access to prominent individuals within the Islamic and indigenous communities throughout the region. The objective is to exploit their wealth and/or political connections, preferably both. Once such contact is established, Iran bolster’s its diplomatic presence, as is the case in Venezuela and Cuba, or establishes a new embassy, such as has occurred in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. In Bolivia, it has been reported that there are no fewer than 145 accredited Iranian diplomats living in the Andean nation. A number that far outweighs their overt interest or commerce with the Plurinational state.”
 
Dardo Lopez-Dolz, Former Vice Minister of the Interior of Peru
 
“Iran and Hezbollah, two forces hostile to U.S. interests, have made significant inroads in Peru, almost without detection, in part because of our weak institutions, prevalent criminal enterprise, and various stateless areas. These elements are particularly weak in the southern mountainous region of my country.
 
As Peru’s Vice Minister of Interior in 2006, and through my work as an analyst of political and social conflict conducting various risk analyses for a variety of private sector clients—I have become very familiar with these sub-regions and the illicit actors that operate within them. In the case of Iran and Hezbollah, I began noticing their presence back in 2011. At this time, a connection was forming between the Islamic Republic and other activist movements in Peru controlled by Havana, Caracas and La Paz. These activist groups, have been operating in my country since at least 2005, and include the Casas de ALBA (Houses of ALBA) and the Casas de Amistad Peruano-Cubanos (Peruvian-Cuban Friendship Houses) — political/social organizations aimed at subverting and weakening our democratic institutions and spreading socialist ideology throughout the country.
 
Since the Iranian attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994, I have been concerned about the Iranian and radical Islamist presence in my country. But it wasn’t until a few years ago (circa 2011) that I began receiving information regarding the presence and activity of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in Apurímac, Peru, which is a poor, not densely inhabited, remote region of the country. Apurímac is also a mineral rich region, with tremendous potential for strategic minerals such as uranium (Minera), but the region is also heavily involved in cocaine production.”
 
“Peru’s current government may show some sympathy towards Iran, but it is not openly an ally of Iran. Iran is recruiting and using clandestine entry into Peru, constructing networks with a growing capability for action in the southern Andean region, which puts at risk not only U.S. interests, but also undermines the very stability of democracy and economic growth of my country. These networks have links with subversive organizations; operate under the facade of self proclamed (not elected by citizens) fronts for environmental protection (usually forcing the population to back them by fear), and to promote an anti-investment climate that has already yielded their desired results by paralyzing major mining, energy and hydrocarbon projects. The arrest in October 2014 of a presumed Lebanese terrorist (Amadar), who confessed to being a member of Hezbollah, with clear evidence of having handled explosives, indicates they seem to be ready to move into an offensive phase using terror.”
 
Scott Modell, Senior Advisor at the Rapidan Group
 
“For more than three decades, Iran has sought to preserve the Islamic revolution at home and promote it abroad through a network of government and nongovernment organizations that I refer to as the “Iran Action Network” (IAN). The members of that network are involved in crafting and implementing the covert elements of Iran’s foreign policy agenda, from terrorism and other forms of political subversion to illicit finance, weapons and narcotics trafficking, and nuclear procurement and proliferation. They include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its special operations wing, the Qods Force; the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS); Iran’s terror proxies, most notably Lebanese Hezbollah; a web of Islamic cultural centers, foundations, charities, and mosques; Iran’s ambassadors (often IRGC and MOIS officers) and other Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel; and an expanding global network of agents, middlemen, and facilitators involved in a wide range of illicit activities, from arms and drug trafficking to nuclear procurement.
 
While Iran’s most ambitious attempts to externalize its revolution have occurred in the Islamic world, since 2005 it has gone to considerable lengths to build influence in its geographic and strategic countries that can act as partners in a global network designed to oppose U.S. policies. Iran has relied mainly on a small group of “Bolivarian” nations led by Venezuela to blunt the impact of sanctions. They have facilitated Iran’s oil trade, provided access to the international banking system in the face of U.S. and EU sanctions, and given Iran avenues for illicit nuclear and conventional military procurement.
 
Former President Ahmadinejad saw Latin America as a series of “emerging markets” for exporting the Islamic Revolution. He relied on promises of economic assistance, mainly in the energy and construction sectors, and Iranian ideological appeals to fight U.S. imperialism. In doing so, he discovered a receptive audience in two of the region’s champions of the left, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Before long, diplomatic missions expanded, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) officers began to surface in greater numbers, and security pacts and intelligence sharing agreements were signed. Ahmadinejad found willing supporters of Iran’s quest to promote the interests of independent nations of the developing world.
 
His rhetorical outreach was a success: Within a few years, Iran was well on its way to having a wide array of diplomatic, commercial, and clandestine networks stretching across Latin America. Iran quickly made it clear that it was not merely seeking ways to irritate the United States in its own backyard, but rather to weaken it by creating alternative centers of power. Iran’s honorary membership in Latin America’s anti-U.S. club known as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) is seen as proof that Ahmadinejad’s efforts were a success. Added strength through ALBA, which would go on to include intelligence, military, and other security-related exercises, facilitated the execution of Iran’s regional agenda, which included obtaining proscribed military technologies, providing cover for Iran’s nuclear program, and gaining access to the international banking system.
 
Yet, Iran’s growing reach into the Western Hemisphere also proved to be an uphill climb given the U.S.’s ability to counter with economic inducements such as trade or aid and the absence of social and political conditions that are amenable to Iran’s ideological overtures. In many cases, U.S. efforts to counter Iran in the Western Hemisphere have been enough to prevent Iran’s partnerships from having a significant and lasting impact. On the other hand, Iran’s efforts often unravel entirely on their own. Its poor track record of following through on aid and trade often leads its new Latin American partners – who tend to be weak militarily and economically – to question the political and economic wisdom of membership in an anti-U.S. coalition. The recent collapse in the price of oil has also forced Iran to downsize several of its missions across the continent.
 
While Tehran’s web of relationships in the western hemisphere has fallen short of what Ahmadinejad and Iran’s more ambitious hardliners had envisioned, there are reasons why it cannot be ignored. It began and continues with subversive intent, is largely covert and criminal in nature, and can be used to directly threaten U.S. interests in the future. Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires and its foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States are vivid reminders of what Iran is capable of.
 
Perhaps the most daunting challenge related to the IAN in the Western Hemisphere is how to stop the transnational criminal networks of Iran’s closest terror proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah continues to play a key role in the projection of Iranian power, no longer limited to aiding Iran’s traditional goals of fighting Israel and protecting Lebanon, or supporting Iran’s latest operations in Syria and Iraq. It includes several countries in the Western Hemisphere, where Hezbollah has evolved into one of the region’s most significant drug trafficking organizations. Hezbollah’s criminal reach extends far beyond Latin America, from Guinea Bissau, Benin, and other West African crime states to a rapidly expanding criminal infrastructure in Thailand and China.”
 
Michael Shifter, President of Inter-American Dialogue
 
“In the past, Iran has clearly sought to expand its support in Latin America. But with its economy in dire straits, its ability to do so is severely limited. Economic projects in country after country have failed to materialize. There have been in the past myriad bilateral deals between Iran and Venezuela, including joint ventures to produce cars, tractors, and bicycles, and some cooperation in mining exploration and housing construction. Although President Maduro has declared that Iran is a strategic partner of Venezuela, few of these projects have had concrete results. One of the central aspects of their cooperation, oil industry cooperation, ended when the offices of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) in Venezuela and Bolivia— Iran’s other major ally in Latin America—were closed in 2014. In Nicaragua, similarly, Iran pledged construction of a dam and a $350 million deep-water port, as well as auto and cement projects—and none has come into being. Economic cooperation between Ecuador and Iran remains virtually nil.
 
Brazil, its largest trade partner in Latin America, had relatively strong political ties with Iran throughout the 2000s. The Brazilian government even supported the Iran’s position on the nuclear question in 2007 and 2008. Under Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, however, the relationship has notably cooled, in some measure because of her personal objections to Iran’s human rights record. During her first presidential campaign, Rousseff went so far as to call aspects of Iran’s human rights violations “medieval behavior.” When Ahmadinejad visited Rio de Janeiro as part of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, not only was he greeted with large protests, but President Rousseff refused his request for a meeting. This hardly suggests a strong alliance.
 
Moreover, while Ahmadinejad made improving ties with Latin America a foreign policy priority, Rouhani does not seem to share this objective. At the same time, the death of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in 2013 deprived Iran of one of its major backers in the region. Although Rouhani had promised to attend the G77 summit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in June 2014, at the last minute he sent his first vice-president, Eshaq Yahanguir. Ahmadinejad, in contrast, had made numerous trips to the region during his presidency.
 
One crucial question, however, is whether, given the nature of the regime, Iran's involvement in the region should be regarded as benign. On this score there are admittedly ample grounds for skepticism, given the regime's demonstrated support for terrorist activities and organizations such as Hezbollah. A number of serious allegations in the past have been made about Iran’s current activities in Latin America. The first is that Iranian agents are sponsoring training camps for terrorists. Another allegation has to do with Iranian support for prospecting uranium in Venezuela and Ecuador. Yet, of all of these, arguably the most grave is a 2013 report on Iran’s activities in the region by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. As it is now widely known, early this year Mr. Nisman accused President Fernández de Kirchner of attempting to shield Iran in the investigation of accused involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy (1992) and the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires (1994) that killed 85 people. Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires immediately before he was set to testify in the Argentine Congress. The circumstances of his death remain disputed.
 
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